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Iraqi protesters set fire to provincial government building in Basra

Iraqi protesters set fire to provincial government building in Basra
A man holds a national flag while protesters burn a municipal complex in Basra on Sept. 5. (Nabil al-Jurani / Associated Press)

Iraqi protesters stormed and set fire to a provincial government building in the southern city of Basra despite a curfew imposed by authorities Thursday to try to quell demonstrations against poor public services and unemployment that have turned violent.

Three protesters were shot dead by security forces, according to a medical and a security official. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.

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Iraq's popular Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada Sadr called for an urgent parliamentary session to discuss the situation in Basra province, Iraq's second largest and home to about 70% of the OPEC member's vast oil reserves.

Twelve civilians have been killed since the start of the month in confrontations between demonstrators and police, according to Iraq's Independent High Commission for Human Rights, which said 93 civilians and 18 security forces were injured.

The protests showed no sign of abating Thursday evening as hundreds of young men took to the streets, shouting, "Peaceful, peaceful." Several government buildings have been attacked in the last few days of protests that have spread throughout the city.

In a televised speech, Sadr said that the parliament session should be held no later than Sunday and that the prime minister and other officials should attend the session or resign.

The populist cleric's supporters won the most seats in national elections this year, but Iraq's feuding factions have yet to form a new government. The snowballing protests cast a further shadow on those efforts.

A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Umm 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.

Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, an Interior Ministry spokesman, announced a curfew in Basra starting at 3 p.m. Thursday, citing "intelligence reports of possible attacks on government offices." The government has said the protesters' demands are legitimate, while blaming the violence on saboteurs. The curfew announcement was ignored.

Residents of Basra and other cities in Iraq's southern Shiite heartland have been protesting since July over endemic corruption, soaring joblessness and poor public services. Clashes erupted earlier this week, leaving several civilians and police dead. Prime Minister Haider Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence.

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