BAGHDAD – Hundreds took to the streets Saturday throughout Iraq to demand open elections and improved public services, revealing growing discontent among Iraqis with the pace of reconstruction more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion.
The protests came as the Iraqi government is struggling to restore infrastructure after years of neglect, corruption and insurgent attacks, as well as rebuild their security forces ahead of a planned American withdrawal in 2011.
About 200 demonstrators took to the streets in central Baghdad, chanting: "No water, no electricity in the country of oil and the two rivers," referring to Iraq's ancient name.
Protester Najim Abid said he and others were calling on the Iraqi government and international aid organizations to take immediate action to improve conditions for Iraqis.
"They must step in and save the Iraqi people who are suffering because of poverty and deprivation," said Abid, 52, a retired government worker.
Iraq's economy has been badly hit by low oil prices, which forced the government twice this year to slash its budget from $79 billion to $58.6 billion. Its budget next year is expected to be about $70 billion, still well below its funding needs.
Oil accounts for about 95 percent of Iraq's revenues.
The lack of clean water and electricity could prove to be an issue in next January's national elections for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has campaigned on the issue of improved security. In recent days, al-Maliki has begun speaking publicly about increasing funding for reconstruction.
About 800 people in the southern provinces of Wasit and Basra took to the streets in support of a call by the country's most senior Shiite cleric to hold more open elections.
Iraq's parliament has been considering having the Jan. 16 ballots list only the party blocs and not the individual candidates.
Last week, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani threatened to boycott the Jan. 16 elections if the voting system includes only the parties and not the names of the candidates. Al-Sistani wants the so-called "open list" system because he believes it will encourage more voter participation.