BASRA, Iraq — Protesters in this port city stormed the Iranian Consulate late Friday, setting it on fire and sharply escalating violent demonstrations that began over miserable living conditions but have grown into an indictment of Iraq’s stagnant politics.
The consulate was the latest symbol of entrenched power to be torched by protesters in Basra during a week of demonstrations, raising concerns that the unrest would draw a firm response from Iran, which controls several powerful militias in the oil-export city.
The attack on the consulate also upended notions of solidarity between Iraq’s Shiite heartland and Iran, the preeminent Shiite power in the region. The assault contributed to a growing sense that Iraq is slipping into a period of dangerous instability as powerful political parties remain locked in a struggle over the composition of the country’s next government.
Protesters said they targeted the consulate to vent their frustrations over abuses by Iran-backed militias in Basra, as well what they see as Tehran’s outsize influence over their city and over Iraq’s fractured politics.
The demonstrators complained that the militias run rampant in Basra, kidnapping and extorting money from their opponents and creating an atmosphere of fear. They said Iran has empowered the militias to enrich themselves at the expense of the city’s residents.
“Iran has destabilized Basra with their armed gangs,” said Sattar Hamdi, 50, a day laborer. “They have the upper hand here and with the politicians in Baghdad. I’m appealing to any foreign country, even Israel, for help because we’ve already lost Iraq to Iran.”
Protests over a lack of electricity and clean water during the scorching summer months began in early July in Basra and other Shiite-majority cities but have grown larger and more violent in recent days as politicians have failed to form a national government nearly four months after elections in May.
Iran and the United States have been deeply involved in the political gridlock, each supporting rival factions that claim a parliamentary majority and the right to appoint a new prime minister.
People in Basra have accused Iraq’s political class of abandoning them, ignoring the people’s pleas for relief as the politicians jockey for control of a new government. They have expressed their displeasure by burning down the headquarters of nearly every political party in the city, along with offices belonging to Shiite militias that won parliamentary seats in the May elections.
Fresh graffiti outside the destroyed offices of the powerful Badr Organization, an Iran-aligned party that counts Iraq’s interior minister among its senior leaders, announced: “We demand blood.”
Packs of young men surrounded the gated complex of the Iranian Consulate as the sun set on Friday, breaking past police checkpoints as they smashed their way into the empty building and set it on fire.
Dozens lingered afterward, taking photos and videos of the burning consulate as police stood by — sometimes chatting or joking with the young demonstrators.
Police had repelled an attack on the consulate Thursday night but were overwhelmed by the growing number of young men Friday, one officer said. He said he was hesitant to draw his weapon on the protesters after at least eight were shot during other demonstrations this week, drawing widespread condemnation from the government and from the United Nations and human rights groups.
“Visa services are officially suspended,” cracked one of the demonstrators as he filmed the flames and dark plumes of smoke with his cellphone.
“Shall we go for the Turkish Consulate next?” a friend responded.
A group of protesters gathered around a young man who clutched papers he said he stole from a city council building that purported to show thousands of dollars in allocations to various city officials.
“They’re being given a fortune, but we can’t even get clean water from the taps,” the man shouted.
Iraq’s Health Ministry said Thursday that 6,280 people have been sickened by the water in Basra, which residents have said is too salty for drinking or cleaning.
Protesters have said they were moved to action by the city’s undrinkable water and crumbling infrastructure, bitterly noting that Basra is the top export hub for Iraq’s oil yet remains one of the country’s least developed cities.
After Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government failed to respond to their demands in July, protesters began to rally against Iraq’s endemic corruption and the political figures that have dominated the country since the 2003 invasion by U.S. troops.
Hussein Hatem, 33, a welder, said that torching the Iranian Consulate was a message to Iran’s and Iraq’s leaders alike that Basra “does not belong to anyone.”
“Our government takes orders from Iran,” he said. “And no one is looking after us. We’ve run out of patience. They’re busy trying to form the biggest bloc in parliament and they can’t fulfill the most basic demand for clean water.”
Iraq’s Foreign Ministry condemned the attack on the consulate, saying the assault harms Iraq’s interests and is unrelated to demonstrators’ demands for basic services and clean water.
It was the latest security embarrassment for the ministry in two days. Late Thursday, three mortar rounds landed in an empty field near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone. There were no injuries, and no group asserted responsibility for the incident.
Meanwhile, Basra is settling into a new rhythm.
During the day, diverse groups of protesters, including many women, chant against government corruption and unemployment, occupying major squares and boulevards to demonstrate peacefully.
As day gives way to night, large columns of young men in their teens and 20s take over the streets, stopping traffic as they walk swiftly or jog to any symbol of government power they can find to vandalize.
Despite the daytime protests and nighttime disturbances, residents go about their business, sipping tea in cafes or window-shopping at brightly lighted stores. On occasion, they step aside to make way for the clutches of young men chanting slogans such as “Iran, out, out!” and “If we die, we die, as long as the nation survives.”