Deadly protests rage in Iraq over lack of services as political transition deadlocks

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BAGHDAD - Iraqi authorities were bracing for a fresh round of violent protests on Wednesday after security forces killed six demonstrators over the last two days during angry marches in Basra over the lack of basic services and government corruption.

The spasm of violence has raised calls for solidarity protests throughout the country as activists seek to revive a campaign that began in early July over spotty electricity, undrinkable water, unemployment and frustrations with a political system that has failed to name a new government nearly four months since national elections were held.

The halting political transition has drawn the United States and Iran further into the unpredictable horse-trading that has prevented any clear winner from emerging, paralyzing a freshly minted-parliament just one day after it convened for the first time on Monday.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is seeking a second term in office with Washington's backing, ordered an investigation into the death of a protester who was apparently killed by live fire late on Monday in Basra.

He also told security forces to protect and facilitate peaceful demonstrations and urged protesters to refrain from provoking authorities and damaging government property.

That did not deter renewed demonstrations on Tuesday in which stones and molotov cocktails were hurled at local government buildings, drawing warning shots and tear gas from security forces.

Local health officials in Basra, Iraq's largest city in the nation's southern Shiite heartland, said five demonstrators were killed Tuesday night and nearly two dozen were injured. A security official told Iraq's state television that 22 security forces were also injured.

Calm was restored in the early hours of Wednesday after local officials imposed a curfew, but the images of bloodied protesters drew angry condemnations from activists and some politicians. There are now calls for demonstrations in the capital Baghdad in support of Basra's residents.

The U.N. special representative for Iraq, Jan Kubis, said he was gravely concerned over the deaths in Basra and urged authorities "to avoid using disproportionate, lethal force against the demonstrators, provide the necessary protection for the people of Basra." Kubis also appealed to Iraq's newly-elected lawmakers to set aside differences and quickly work toward forming a new government.

"Long-term stability and improved economic performance go hand-in-hand, and tackling these challenges rests with the political leaders uniting and working together in the national interest," he said in a statement.

Moqtada al-Sadr, the populist Shiite cleric whose ticket won the most seats in May's election and enjoys widespread support in Basra, said in a tweet that the demonstrators were only demanding "to live with dignity." He stopped short of condemning the security forces' use of live ammunition.

In early July, residents of Basra and other Shiite majority cities in the south began protesting frequent blackouts and the undrinkable salty water that flows from faucets in the oil-rich region. The demonstrations morphed into a sweeping campaign against local and federal officials the protesters blame for endemic corruption and mismanagement that has turned Basra decrepit, despite it being the overwhelming producer of Iraq's oil.

Tensions were heightened this week when Iraq's parliament convened for the first time on Monday following a lengthy recount of May's ballots amid accusations of fraud. Two blocs claimed a majority of seats, leading to a deadlock and failure to elect a speaker, as mandated by the constitution.

On Tuesday, the interim speaker of the parliament appealed to the Federal Supreme Court to settle the dispute and parliament postponed its next session for at least 10 days.

With its fractured political scene and fierce regional rivalries, it has typically taken many months after elections for each of Iraq's governments to form since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Both the United States and Iran have a major stake in the outcome of the dispute, with Washington holding the weaker hand.

Abadi has entered a coalition with Sadr, a fierce critic of the United States who emerged in 2004 as the dominant symbol of resistance to the American invasion. While his active opposition to American forces has diminished, his soaring criticism has not. Sadr has also opposed Tehran's influence in Iraq but maintains cordial ties with Iranian religious and political leaders.

Abadi and Sadr claim to have the necessary backing of the majority of lawmakers to form the next government, which could see Abadi retain his post despite performing poorly in May's election.

Brett McGurk, the White House envoy for the coalition to fight the Islamic State, has been in Iraq to urge minority Sunni and Kurdish blocs to back Abadi, drawing the ire of a pro-Iran ticket lead by Shiite militia leader Hadi al-Amiri and the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Amiri and Maliki have also claimed to hold a legislative majority after peeling away members of Abadi's ticket. The most significant defection has been Falih al-Fayyadh, who Abadi dismissed last week as his national security adviser and head of the powerful umbrella group that governs Iraq's armed militias.

Amiri angrily accused McGurk of seeking to dictate the formation of Iraq's next government, which will be tasked with managing a massive rebuilding effort after a costly three year war against the Islamic State while attempting to revive Iraq's stagnant economy.

The next government will also have to balance between much needed American security support to prevent another extremist insurgency and vital trade with Iran at a time when the Trump administration has sought to isolate Tehran internationally through renewed sanctions - the effects of which have been felt by ordinary Iraqis.

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This article was written by Tamer El-Ghobashy, a reporter for The Washington Post.