BASRA/ERBIL, Iraq, (Reuters) – Civil unrest fueled by anger against perceived corruption and misrule by Iraq’s political elite intensified across the south of the country yesterday, as protesters stormed the Iranian consulate in Basra while others briefly took workers hostage at a nearby oilfield.
After five days of deadly demonstrations in Basra in which government buildings have been ransacked and set alight, protesters broke in and damaged the consulate’s offices, shouting condemnation of what many perceive as Iran’s sway over Iraq’s political affairs.
Security sources said the consulate was empty when the crowd burst in. Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said the storming of the consulate, which it deeply regretted, had nothing to do with protesters’ demands.
“The targeting of diplomatic missions is unacceptable and detrimental to the interests of Iraq,” said ministry spokesman Ahmed Mahjoub.
Iran, however, blamed Iraq for failing to protect its embassy and said it expected Baghdad to “identify and punish the attackers quickly,” Bahram Qassemi, the spokesman for the ministry, told journalists, according to state media.
The Iraqi ambassador to Tehran was later summoned to the foreign ministry over the complaints.
Several foreign governments have consulates in the city, including the United States and Russia.
In a statement, the U.S. State Department condemned the violence against diplomats and called on “all parties, including security forces and protesters, to uphold the right of peaceful protest and to protect diplomats and their facilities.”
Late in the day some 65 kilometers north-west of Iraq’s second biggest city, another group of protesters entered a water treatment facility linked to the West Qurna 2 oilfield, managed by Russia’s Lukoil.
Oil prices were steady on Friday, with U.S. crude slipping on weak global equity markets while Brent inched up on geopolitical factors, including violent protests in Iraq.
U.S. West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude futures settled down 2 cents at $67.75 per barrel. Brent crude futures settled up 33 cents at $76.83 a barrel.
The protesters held two Iraqi employees hostage for about an hour before leaving the facility peacefully, according to a Lukoil source and a source with Basra’s energy police. Production was not disrupted, a manager at the oilfield said.
The unrest in Basra could have deeper implications for a country that imports most of its food.
Since Thursday, protesters have shut Iraq’s only major sea port at Umm Qasr, 60 km (40 miles) south of Basra. It remained shut on Friday, local officials and security sources said, although oil exports, carried out from offshore platforms, have not been affected.