Hundreds of Iraqi demonstrators massed in the southern city of Basra yesterday to demand the ouster of the local governor, a day after a similar anti-government protest sparked violence that killed three people.
Yesterday’s demonstration by people demanding better services, an end to corruption and more jobs is the latest outburst to hit Iraq in the wake of the regional upheaval that is sweeping the Middle East.
About 600 people gathered in front of the Basra provincial headquarters, facing off against police protecting the building.
With the exception of some pushing and shoving between protesters and police, witnesses said the protest was largely peaceful.
On Wednesday, about 2,000 demonstrators attacked government offices in Wasit Province, ripping up pavement stones to hurl at a regional council headquarters in a protest over shoddy public services, officials said.
The demonstration was among the most dramatic since Iraqis began venting their anger about dysfunctional government at all levels in relatively small protests across the country. Unlike protesters in other countries demanding democracy or regime change, however, demonstrators in Iraq have focused on unemployment, corruption and a lack of electricity.
The top medical official in Wasit, Diaa al-Aboudi, said 55 people were injured — including three critically — in the protests in the city of Kut, 160km southeast of Baghdad. He said some of them were shot by police, while others were hit by stones or suffered burns.
Kut police denied firing on the protesters and blamed the governor’s bodyguards and private security guards at one of the buildings. The governor could not immediately be reached for comment, but al-Aboudi said witnesses and ambulance workers reported that police fired on the demonstrators. Al-Aboudi also said demonstrators threw stones at ambulances who came to rescue the wounded.
Protesters threw stones at the provincial council headquarters, set a trailer outside the building on fire and rushed inside the compound, said Sondos al-Dahabi, a spokeswoman for the local goverment.
She added that authorities had imposed a curfew in the city as night fell.
Television footage showed billows of smoke, a palm tree on fire and protesters, many of them teenagers, filling the headquarters compound. The sound of gunshots could be heard and demonstrators could be seen riding on a commandeered police truck and armored personnel carrier, waving Iraqi flags.
Protesters also went to the governor’s headquarters, leaving a mess in their wake, before heading to the governor’s house, al-Dahabi said.
According to the spokeswoman, the demonstrators tried to set fire to the governor’s house, which was empty at the time. It was not clear whether the house was damaged.
Iraq is one of the few countries with a democratically elected government in the Middle East, but its leaders have not been immune from the anger engulfing the region. Iraqis have a long list of grievances against their leaders, including electricity that sometimes works only a few hours a day, unemployment that runs as high as 30 percent and rampant corruption.
As security has improved in the country following the worst of the sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007, attention has turned to the quality of life and economic issues instead.
Wasit is a mostly Shiite province bordering Iran and is one of Iraq’s poorest regions.
“It is us who brought the governor and other officials to office through the provincial elections, but in return we got nothing,” said Hassan Ali Murwah, one of the protesters. “We will repeat such protests and no force on earth can stand against us.”