Three killed, dozens injured in Iraqi protests

KUT, Iraq Wed Feb 16, 2011 12:03pm EST

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KUT, Iraq (Reuters) - Three people were killed and dozens wounded in southern Iraq on Wednesday as protesters demanding better basic services fought with police and set government buildings on fire, hospital and police sources said.

Around 2,000 people took to the streets in the city of Kut, throwing bricks and stones at Iraqi security forces.

Some voiced direct anger at Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, echoing rallies that have shaken other parts of the Arab world.

"Down, down Maliki's government. Down, down with corruption. Down, down thieves," shouted 36-year-old teacher Ali Abdulla, who led a group of protesters and was bleeding from his head after clashing with police.

"We call for change. We will not stay silent anymore."

A police source in Kut said three protesters were killed in clashes and about 30 wounded, including 15 policemen. A hospital source at Kut's al-Abbas hospital said it had received around 28 wounded, including 15 policemen.

Protesters wielding sticks stormed the government and provincial council buildings and used burning pieces of cardboard to set fire to curtains in the two buildings.

Witnesses at the scene of the rally said some demonstrators also set the governor's house ablaze.

"Angry protesters set fire at the reception and first floor of the provincial building and they are preventing firefighters from putting out the fire," Lieutenant Colonel Aziz al-Amarah, head of the rapid response police force in Wasit province said.

"We have evacuated all government and provincial office employees to protect them and save their lives."

Police, who were initially unsuccessful in dispersing protesters, later managed to clear the streets by continuously firing shots into the air, police sources said.

"The rapid reaction forces and the national police dispersed the protestors. Fire engines have entered the area to quell the fire in the provincial council and government buildings," said one police source in Kut. "We have surrounded the entire city. No car is allowed into the city except for emergencies."

Local authorities had earlier declared an immediate curfew.

GROWING FRUSTRATION

Iraqis have long protested against poor services, although recent rallies elsewhere in the Arab region appear to have renewed their desire to vent their frustrations to an elected government that took office less than two months ago.

Wednesday's demonstrations, which started as protests against poor services, soon turned into direct calls for the removal of provincial government officials in Kut.

"We are fed up with bad services. We only hear through the media that Iraq is an oil-rich country, but we live in miserable conditions. No water, no electricity, no food and we are all unemployed," 27-year-old Kut resident Abdulla Salman said.

"Officials are ignoring us and turning a blind eye to our suffering. We are desperate, we want our voice to be heard in any way, even by setting fire to buildings and police cars."

Muntadhar al-Shahmani, a provincial council member from the political movement of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, said some council members want the governor fired.

Iraq is still struggling to get back on its feet almost eight years after the U.S.-led invasion. Infrastructure is dilapidated, electricity is in short supply and jobs are scarce.

Unlike other countries in the region, Iraq's authoritarian regime was removed by the invasion and democratically elected leaders have pledged to reform the war-battered state.

Maliki on Monday welcomed the protests and admitted a shortage in services.

Protests in Iraq have so far been scattered and appear not to have the same momentum as uprisings elsewhere in the region, although Iraqis demonstrating against corruption and joblessness on Tuesday made direct reference to the turmoil that has shaken autocratic leaders elsewhere in the Arab world.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Aseel Kami in Baghdad; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

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