Iraqi security forces deployed on the streets of Basra on Saturday, a day after protesters in the southern city stormed the Iranian consulate and torched government buildings in violence that rocked the oil-exporting Shiite heartland and sparked alarm across a conflict-weary country.
Masked troops in combat fatigues set up checkpoints and rode through the city center in black pickup trucks with heavy weapons mounted in the back. Security forces in Humvees deployed at intersections.
The deployment came after an alliance of powerful Shiite militias, many of them backed by Iran, vowed to respond to the violent protests that have gripped the city for the past week, raising the threat of further violence.
At least 15 people were killed and 249 injured in clashes between protesters and security forces this week, health officials say.
Since June, Basra has been shaken by the most serious protests in the oil-rich southern region in years, with angry residents complaining of poor public services. In recent days, protests escalated as crowds turned their rage on neighboring Iran, blaming its outsized influence in Iraq's political affairs for their misery and calling for radical change. Iran controls powerful Shiite militias in Basra, home to some of the largest oil fields in Iraq.
Raad Abdelhamid, a Basra firefighter, said he fears for Iraq.
"The militias are responsible for this corruption," he said as he stood outside the still-smoldering provincial government building on Saturday, his second day of working to put out a fire there. "I fear Basra is headed for more blood," he added, in tears.
A banner on one side of the building read in Arabic: "No to the militias, your militias under our feet."
Despite the oil wealth, the city has long suffered from government neglect, soaring unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure. Over the last month, thousands of people were hospitalized after drinking polluted water.
Angry protesters have torched government buildings and offices belonging to the Iranian-backed militias in the weeklong protests demanding improved services and an end to corruption. On Friday night, protesters chanting anti-Iranian slogans including "Iran, out, out!" stormed the Iranian consulate and set it on fire.
They also burned an Iranian flag and trampled on a portrait of Iran Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bahram Ghasemi, condemned the attack on the consulate, which he said caused significant damage to the building. He called for maximum punishment for the assailants. The ministry also summoned the Iraqi ambassador to relay Tehran's "strong protest."
On Saturday, an Iraqi flag was placed at the entrance to the consulate after the Iranian one was torn down and set ablaze. Sprayed in red on the concrete wall of the consulate were the words: "Down with Iran, down with the militias, the revolution will continue."
The U.S. 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 Friday.
The consulate, which handles visas for four southern governorates and issues between 5,000 to 8,000 tourism and medical visas a day through a travel agency located next to the embassy, stopped issuing visas.
The government-sanctioned Shiite militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces — Hashed in Arabic — threatened retaliation Saturday, raising the specter of further escalation.
"We will have a response to those who are carrying out acts of arson and sabotage," the militias' commander, known as Abu Yasser Jaafari, told reporters in Basra.
Jaafari said the lack of response thus far should not be taken as a sign of weakness. He spoke at the city's presidential palaces compound, where Shiite paramilitary troops are stationed.
On Saturday morning, assailants fired three Katyusha rockets at Iraq's Basra airport, which houses the U.S. consulate, adding to the tensions. An airport official said the attack did not cause casualties or disrupt flights in or out of the city. He spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns.There was no immediate claim of responsibility.