Iraq: Protests rage over poor public services, unemployment | News

The Iraqi government held an emergency meeting on Saturday after protests against high unemployment and a lack of basic services spread to the nation’s capital, Baghdad.

The National Security Council was urgently convened under the chairmanship of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and decided to cut internet access in the capital to prevent the unrest from spreading further, Anadolu Agency reported. 

Hundreds of Iraqi protesters stormed government buildings in the south of the country on Friday and occupied Najaf International Airport, demanding better services, job opportunities and an end to alleged Iranian interference.

In the latest in a week of daily protests against corruption and poor governance, demonstrators clashed with security forces in several provinces, including Maysan, Dhi Qar, Basra, Najaf and Karbala.

At least one person was killed and 15 injured in Maysan when Iraqi forces shot at protesters after they attacked and set fire to office buildings used by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Islamic Dawa Party, the Iranian-backed Al-Badr Organisation and the Shia Supreme Islamic Council Party.

According to Iraqi news website Al-Sumaria, 25 anti-riot policemen were also wounded as they tried to stop demonstrators from storming the governor’s house in the province of Dhi Qar.

The protesters had gathered near his residence and could be heard chanting slogans such as “Iran, we don’t want you anymore”.

Hundreds of protesters also cut a road leading to the Umm Qasr seaport in Basra province, Iraq’s largest seaport in the Gulf.

Earlier, a group of protesters stormed Najaf’s international airport, with videos posted on social media showing protesters lighting fires on the tarmac in front of the facility.

“People are hungry, there is no water, no electricity,” protester Abdullah Khaled, 29, told the AFP news agency.

On Saturday, state TV reported that the protest disrupted flights in and out of the busy travel hub but that air traffic had since resumed.

Rampant electricity cuts have exacerbated a sweltering heat wave, with Basra seeing temperatures exceed 48 degrees Celsius in recent days.

The region is home to the oil fields that account for the vast majority of the more than three million barrels of oil Iraq exports every day.

Yet it remains underdeveloped and has suffered from chronic power outages, poor water quality and uncollected waste.

“If they don’t create jobs and improve services such as water and electricity we will close down Basra and oil production,” said Mohammed Jabbar, 29, an unemployed college graduate.

“We will not stop until our demands are met.”

High unemployment

The demonstrations, which started earlier this week in Basra, spread after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the supreme spiritual leader of Shia Muslims in Iraq, expressed his solidarity with the protesters.

“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.

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

Prime Minister Abadi has vowed to rebuild Iraq’s economy, which has been ravaged by years of conflict, but frustrations have grown in the oil-rich south.

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

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 percent of the state budget and 99 percent of Iraq’s export revenues, but only one percent 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 leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s surprise poll win saw long-time political figures pushed out by voters seeking change in the country.

Protesters burned tires and blocked the road leading to the city of Basra on Thursday [Essam al-Sudani/Reuters]

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