Iraqis demanding better public services and jobs took to the streets again Sunday in the southern oil-rich province of Basra as authorities put security forces on high alert and blocked the internet on the sixth day of protests in the country's Shiite heartland.
The protests come at a delicate time as Iraq is in a limbo of sorts, awaiting the final results of a recount of the ballots from May's national elections before a new government can be formed. The elections, the fourth since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, saw the lowest turnout in 15 years and were marred by allegations of fraud and irregularities.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the local government building and closed the roads leading to major oil fields north and west of the city of Basra on Sunday, activist Laith Hussein told the Associated Press over the phone.
Security forces guarding the local government building opened fire, causing some protesters to scatter, he added.
Elsewhere in Basra, protesters forced authorities to close the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf, and planned to march to the border crossings with Kuwait and Iran, he said.
On Saturday night, a group of protesters tried to break into the headquarters of Badr Organization, one of the powerful Shiite parties, which also has an armed wing, but the guards opened fire, wounding some of the protesters, Hussein said.
He could not confirm whether there were fatalities from either of the incidents. Health and police officials were not immediately available to comment.
Around noon, Basra anti-riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse the protesters, said Sadiq Saleh, one of the demonstrators.
“I will not leave my place here until I get all my rights,” said the 35-year-old Saleh, who has been out of work for the last three years. “The government lies to us, they always give us such promises and we get nothing.”
There were also similar protests Saturday in Baghdad. Hundreds poured into Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the eastern Shiite district of Sadr City. Some protesters burned tires and tried to break into the Badr Organization's office in Sadr City, prompting guards to open fire. No casualties were reported.
Protests in Basra boiled over Tuesday when security forces opened fire, killing one person and wounding five, and spread to other provinces within days. Angry mobs broke into local government buildings and burned the offices of some political parties in some cities.
In Najaf, the protesters broke into Iraq's second-busiest airport, damaging the passenger terminal and delaying fights.
Citing security concerns, Kuwait Airways and Royal Jordanian airlines suspended flights to Najaf until further notice. Flights to other Iraqi airports have not been affected, they said. Also, FlyDubai, based in the United Arab Emirates, said it canceled Saturday's flight to Najaf and suspended all flights until July 22. It added the carrier will continue to monitor the situation.
In a bid to contain the protests, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi dispatched a six-minister committee headed by the oil minister, Jabar Ali Luaibi. The committee promised jobs for those living in the areas around the oil fields and announced allocations for urgent projects, mainly for water.
On Friday, Abadi flew to Basra from the NATO summit in Brussels to try to defuse the unrest. He also asked the state-run Basra Oil Co. to provide more jobs to locals and announced urgent allocations.
But that didn't assuage the protesters.
“These announcements are just anesthetization to the residents of Basra,” Hussein, the activist, said. “Every year, they give the same promises, and nothing happened on the ground.”
The only solution is “to replace the current faces that represent the parties that failed to develop Basra by new faces from new political parties from Basra itself,” he also said.
Like others, Hussein demanded Baghdad give more powers to a new, local Basra government.
The demonstrations were given a boost after a representative of the Shiite community's spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, offered his solidarity with the protesters during a Friday sermon, but called for peaceful demonstrations.