Basra, Sep 8(AP/UNB) — Assailants fired three Katyusha rockets at Iraq's Basra airport Saturday, an airport official said, after a chaotic and violent night that saw hundreds of protesters setting ablaze the Iranian consulate in the city, attacking offices belonging to Iranian-backed militias and blocking roads.
The city of Basra, home to some of the largest oil fields in Iraq, has been the epicenter of angry protests over decades of government neglect, poor services and corruption. The demonstrations are the most serious to shake the oil-rich southern Shiite area in years, demanding an end to endemic corruption, soaring joblessness and crumbling infrastructure.
This week, they turned their rage on neighboring Iran, blaming its outsized influence in Iraq's political affairs for their misery and calling for radical change.
"We have no work, no money. Something needs to change," said 18-year-old Mustafa Diaa, a currently jobless construction worker from Basra's Tannouma district who said he has been taking part in the protests daily.
Diaa took part in burning the provincial government building two days earlier and came back Saturday to look at it again. He said he does not regret it and would do so again until something gives.
"They should change the government, provide job opportunities and fix the water. I'm not scared," he said.
The airport official said it was not clear who was behind the Saturday morning attack on Basra airport, which also houses the U.S. consulate. He said the attack occurred at about 8 a.m. local time and did not cause casualties or disrupt flights in or out of the city. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns. There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack.
Iraq's parliament held an emergency session Saturday to discuss the unrest in Basra.
Hours earlier, protesters shouting anti-Iranian slogans including "Iran, out, out!" stormed the Iranian consulate and set a fire inside. They also burned an Iranian flag and trampled over a portrait of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, condemned the attack, which he said caused significant damage to the building. He called for maximum punishment for the assailants.
The State Department criticized the attack, without explicitly mentioning Iran. "The United States condemns violence against diplomats, including that which occurred today in Basra," it said in a statement.
Elsewhere in the city, protesters tried to attack the headquarters of the Iran-backed Assaib Ahl Al-Haq Shiite militia and the guards stationed there opened fire. Angry protesters marched to the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed, and tried to breach it. At least three cars driven by the troops ploughed into the protesters, killing one and wounding four others, according to a health official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
On Saturday, an Associated Press reporter touring the city observed that traffic was normal and shops were open. Police and security forces were conspicuously absent. The two-story consulate was partially burned. An Iraqi flag was placed at the entrance to the consulate after the Iranian one was snatched away and set ablaze at night. Sprayed in red on the concrete wall of the consulate were the words: "Down with Iran, down with the militias, the revolution will continue."
A lone, unarmed policeman sat on a chair at the entrance, underneath the slogan.
The provincial government building in the center of Basra was completely torched. A banner on one side of the building read in Arabic: "No to the militias, your militias under our feet."
Several burned cars were also seen in the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed.
At least 15 protesters have died in clashes with security forces since the beginning of the month, health officials said. The violence has forced the closure of the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf.
A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf since late Wednesday, fearing sabotage. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, wouldn't say when operations will resume.
Basra, once known as the "Venice of the East" because of its freshwater canals, has been hit by an acute water crisis and crippling electricity shortages this summer amid surging Iraq temperatures. Adding to the outrage is a water pollution crisis and salt water seeping into tap waters that is making residents sick. Two hospital officials told the AP that around 35,000 residents have been hospitalized as a result of water pollution in the past month.
The water is reportedly so polluted it cannot even be used for cooking or washing. The protests began in June, then tapered off but restarted Monday following a surge in water poisoning cases.
Iraq's government has scrambled to meet the growing demands for public services and jobs, but has been hindered by years of endemic corruption and a financial crisis fueled by diminished oil revenues and the costly war against the Islamic State group.
Basra streets are filled with pictures of young men from the Iran-backed Shiite militias who were killed fighting against the Islamic State group in the past few years — a war that allowed powerful Iran-backed militias space to flourish and gain strength in Iraq.
Many residents of the predominantly Shiite city now accuse Iranian-backed political parties of interfering with Iraqi politics and hold them responsible for the Shiite militias based in their city, which they blame for mismanagement and profiteering at their expense.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence, which showed no sign of abating.
The unrest in the south comes amid a political crisis in Baghdad, adding to overall tensions in the country.
The newly elected parliament earlier this week held its first session since the national elections in May, but the session was adjourned amid disagreements as two blocs, both claiming to hold the most seats, vied for the right to form a new government.
Vatican City, Sep 8(AP/UNB) — Pope Francis has told newly ordained bishops they must reject all forms of abuse and work in communion — not as lone operators — to fight the clerical culture that fueled a sex abuse and cover-up scandal rocking his papacy.
Francis cited his recent letter about combatting abuse during an audience Saturday with 74 new bishops from 34 countries. The bishops are at the Vatican learning how to pastor their flocks.
Their seminar has come at a moment of crisis for the pope: an archbishop has alleged Francis covered up for a disgraced ex-cardinal in the United States, Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of sexually molesting youngsters and seminarians.
Francis has ignored calls from bishops, primarily in the U.S., to respond directly to the allegation.
Miami, Sep 8(AP/UNB) — A tropical storm formed in the eastern Atlantic continues to move toward the western coast of Africa.
The National Hurricane Center in Miami said Saturday that Tropical Storm Helene was located about 290 miles (466.69 kilometers) east-southeast of the southernmost Cabo Verde Islands. The storm's maximum sustained winds are 45 mph (75 kph) and it is moving west at 13 mph (20 kph).
Forecasters expect the storm to bring tropical storm conditions to parts of the Cabo Verde Islands on Saturday night. Officials say heavy rainfall on the islands could produce life-threatening flash floods.
A tropical storm warning and hurricane watch are in effect for the Cabo Verde islands of Santiago, Fogo, and Brava.
Bandung, Sep 8(AP/UNB) — Twenty-one people were killed Saturday when a tourist bus plunged into a ravine on Indonesia's main Java island, officials said.
The bus was carrying a group of employees from a private company from the West Java province town of Bogor to a tourist destination in West Java's Sukabumi district when the accident happened around midday.
In addition to the 21 dead, the nine others aboard the bus were seriously injured, said a spokesman at Pelabuhanratu hospital, Taufik, who uses one name.
Local police spokesman Trunoyudo Wisnu Andiko said the bus plunged into the 30-meter (98-foot) -deep ravine after the driver lost control of the vehicle in an area with a number of sharp inclines.
He said it was the last of four buses carrying employees of the PT Catur Putra Group who were reportedly on an outing to a rafting location near Pelabuhanratu.
Road accidents are common in Indonesia due to poor safety standards and infrastructure.
In February, 27 people were killed when a packed tourist bus returning from an outing plunged from a hill in Subang in West Java province. Two months later, two accidents in West Java's hilly resort region of Puncak killed at least 15 people.
Skopje, Sep 8 (AP/UNB) — German chancellor Angela Merkel is on a brief visit to Macedonia ahead of a Macedonian referendum on a deal with neighboring Greece aimed at ending a decades-old name dispute.
Merkel's trip Saturday marked the first ever official visit by a German chancellor to the tiny Balkan country as it celebrates 27 years of independence from former Yugoslavia.
Western countries have expressed strong support for the agreement, signed in June, proposing to change Macedonia's name to "North Macedonia," which would allow Macedonia to join NATO. But opposition parties in both countries remain firmly opposed to the agreement.
Merkel is due to meet Macedonian Prime minister Zoran Zaev and conservative opposition leader Hrstijan Mickoski.
Greece has long argued that Macedonia's name implies a claim on the Greek province of the same name.