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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Iraq PM looks to calm Basra unrest as demos spread

Riot police deployed as hundreds gathered outside regional headquarters

A member of the Iraqi anti-riot police stands guard as dozens shout slogans and wave national flags during a demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra. AFP 
A member of the Iraqi anti-riot police stands guard as dozens shout slogans and wave national flags during a demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra. AFP 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi sought on Friday to restore calm in the city of Basra after days of protests over unemployment, as demonstrations spread to other regions.

Mr Al Abadi flew straight into the southern city from Brussels where he attended a Nato summit to discuss ISIS, and immediately held talks with officials, a statement from his office said.

The protests erupted in Basra on Sunday and security forces opened fire, killing a protester and sparking further anger.

Demonstrators have set tyres ablaze to block roads and tried to storm government installations.

As well as unemployment, those involved are frustrated by rising living costs and a lack of basic services in the city, the capital of Basra province.

As Prime Minister Al Abadi met the governor of the oil-rich province and energy chiefs, Iraq's top Shiite authority voiced support for the protesters.

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"It is not fair and it is never acceptable that this generous province is one of the most miserable areas in Iraq," Abdel Mahdi Al Karbalai, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, said at Friday prayers in Karbala.

Mr Karbalai urged the "federal and local government to deal seriously with the demands of citizens," while also calling on demonstrators to refrain from violence.

Hundreds of people holding Iraqi flags gathered outside the regional headquarters in Basra city centre on Friday, with security forces, including riot police, heavily deployed.

"People are hungry, there is no water, no electricity," protester Abdullah Khaled, 29, said.

Protests spread northwards as well as to other regions on Friday as demonstrators took to the streets in the Dhi Qar, Maysan and Najaf provinces.

An AFP journalist reported several protesters were injured as dozens forced their way into the waiting room at the airport serving the holy city of Najaf despite heavy police presence.

Several civilians and policemen were also injured in clashes around the governor's home in the city of Nasiriyah, a medical source said.

Powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, whose populist coalition triumphed in the May elections on an anti-graft ticket, backed those on the street, but rejected violence from both sides during the protests.

"We do not accept the aggression against the oppressed demonstrators, and we wish for the demonstrators to preserve public property because it belongs to the people and not to the corrupt," he wrote on Twitter.

In an apparent first step to calm frayed nerves, Mr Al Abadi in Basra ordered local officials to sort out "the legal status" of security guards employed by the interior ministry at oil facilities, his office said.

These guards receive no benefits and work without contracts unlike their peers at the interior ministry.

At a later meeting with local tribal leaders Mr Al Abadi pledged to "spend the necessary funds for Basra, including on services and reconstruction," a source close to the prime minister told AFP.

Dozens of Iraqis shout slogans and wave national flags during a demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra. AFP 
Dozens of Iraqis shout slogans and wave national flags during a demonstration outside the local government headquarters in the southern city of Basra. AFP 

On Thursday Oil Minister Jabbar Al Luaibi said protesters tried to break into an oil installation in the West Qurna-2 oil field of Basra province.

In a statement released by his office, Mr Al Luaibi said the demonstrators failed to enter the area but had set fire to a gate and a security post.

Officially, 10.8 per cent of Iraqis are jobless, while youth unemployment is twice as high in a country where 60 per cent of the population is aged under 24.

Mr Al Abadi has vowed to rebuild the economy, ravaged by years of conflict, but frustrations have been growing especially in the oil-rich south.

Iraq is the second biggest producer of crude in the OPEC oil cartel, with 153 billion barrels of proven reserves.

The oil sector accounts for 89 per cent of the state budget and 99 per cent of Iraq's export revenues, but only one per cent of jobs as the majority of posts are filled by foreigners.

Iraq is currently in political limbo as the country looks to form a new government after populist Mr Al Sadr's surprise poll win saw long-time political figures pushed out by voters seeking change in a country mired in conflict and corruption.

Mr Al Sadr has sought to form a broad coalition with rivals including incumbent Prime Minister Al Abadi, but the process has been complicated by the supreme court ordering manual recounts in areas where the vote was disputed.