A man holds a national flag while protesters burn the municipal complex during protests demanding better public services and jobs in Basra, 340 miles (550 km) southeast of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Iraqi protesters set fire to provincial government building

September 06, 2018 - 10:50 am

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi protesters stormed and set fire to a provincial government building in the southern city of Basra, despite a curfew imposed by authorities Thursday to try and quell demonstrations against poor public services and unemployment that have turned violent.

Iraq's popular Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for an urgent parliamentary session to discuss the situation in Basra, Iraq's second-largest province and home to about 70 percent of the OPEC member's vast oil reserves.

Nine civilians have been killed since the start of the month in confrontations between demonstrators and police, according to Iraq's Independent High Commission for Human Rights, which said another 93 civilians and 18 security forces were injured.

The protests showed no sign of abating Thursday evening as hundreds of young men took to the streets, shouting: "Peaceful, peaceful." Several government buildings have been attacked in the past few days of protests that have spread throughout the city.

In a televised speech, al-Sadr said the parliament session should be held no later than Sunday, and that the prime minister and other officials should either attend the session or resign.

The populist cleric's supporters won the most seats in national elections held earlier this year, but Iraq's feuding factions have yet to form a new government. The snowballing protests cast a further shadow on those efforts.

A provincial official with state-run Iraqi Ports Co. said authorities closed the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf since late Wednesday, fearing sabotage. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release information, wouldn't say when operations will resume.

Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, Interior Ministry spokesman, announced a curfew in Basra starting at 3 p.m. Thursday, citing "intelligence reports of possible attacks on government offices." The government has said the protesters' demands are legitimate, while blaming the violence on saboteurs. The curfew announcement was ignored.

Residents of Basra and other cities in Iraq's southern Shiite heartland have been protesting since July over endemic corruption, soaring joblessness and poor public services. Clashes erupted earlier this week, leaving several civilians and police dead. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ordered an investigation into the violence.


Associated Press writer Nabil al-Jurani in Basra contributed.

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