Iraqi protesters demand better services in oil hub

Iraqis demanding better public services, jobs and pensions blocked a bridge Friday in the southern oil hub of Basra, as spreading Middle East unrest emboldens Iraqis to take on government officials over poor living standards.

In the wake of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, frustrated Iraqis have staged repeated protests across the country. This week, at least five people were killed when demonstrations in two Iraqi cities turned violent.

About 1,000 people rallied Friday in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, to demand the resignation of the provincial governor, who they say has failed to boost the quality of life even as security improves.

The city, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, is a microcosm of postwar Iraq's many woes.

"We're living in miserable conditions — no electricity, dirty, muddy streets. We have to make changes. We should not be silent," said one of the protesters, Qais Jabbar. The 32-year-old father of three said despite a college degree, he works as a taxi driver and shares a small house with his three brothers and their families in eastern Basra.

Basra is the hub of the oil industry in a country that has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. But little of that wealth has trickled down to the city's people.

Poor settlements ring the city. Piles of garbage and pools of stagnant water and sewage blot its dust-covered streets, where donkeys, stray dogs, sheep and goats roam. As in many of Iraq's cities, the well-off turn to generators during the frequent electricity shortages, but Basra's poor residents swelter for hours during the summer months when only a few hours of electricity is common.

Protests last summer focusing on a lack of electricity were orchestrated by followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But this time the Sadrists, now a central part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, say they are not playing a role in the demonstrations, which instead seem to be driven by a medley of political groups, NGOs and a frustrated public.

Residents at the protest Friday called for the resignation of the governor, Sheltagh Aboud al-Mayahi, an ally of al-Maliki, who they say has done little to improve the city and province since he was elected two years ago. They blocked traffic on the bridge for a few hours before dispersing.

Economic frustration has spread to railway workers, who said they will go on strike Monday in Baghdad and other provinces because of a decision by the Finance Ministry to cut funding to the railway, said Jawad al-Khirsan, the spokesman of the Iraqi Railways Directorate.

That could have economic consequences because Iraqi railways carry passengers as well as cargo, particularly oil and oil products, throughout Iraq.

The autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq has had more economic success than the rest of the country but that has not stopped protests there. In a demonstration Thursday in Sulaimaniyah, 160 miles (260 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, Kurdish security guards opened fire on protesters demanding political reforms, killing two people and injuring 47.

Many Kurds complain that the two dominant political parties in the Kurdish region have a stranglehold on jobs and the economy.

President Massoud Barzani vowed to investigate the issue and called for calm.

The protesters were demonstrating outside the headquarters of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and pelted the building with rocks. In a statement late Thursday, the KDP said the private security guards were forced to defend themselves.