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BASRA, Iraq (AP) — Activists say powerful Iranian-backed militias that control Iraq’s oil capital of Basra have waged a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary arrests to silence protests aimed at poor government services and Tehran’s outsized influence in the region.

Some protesters say they have been beaten or threatened. One militia leader denies orders for a clampdown were given, but another says the groups seek revenge for protesters’ attacks on militia headquarters and the local Iranian consulate.

Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals.