Iraqi forces use water cannon to disperse protests

BASRA, Iraq Fri Mar 4, 2011 10:51am EST

1 of 3. Riot policemen disperse protesters during a demonstration in front of the provincial council building of Basra, 420 km (260 miles) southeast of Baghdad, March 4, 2011. Iraqi security forces used water cannons and batons to disperse protesters in the southern oil hub of Basra on Friday as thousands of Iraqis rallied around the state against corrupt officials and poor basic services.

Credit: Reuters/Atef Hassan

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BASRA, Iraq (Reuters) -Iraqi security forces used water cannon and batons to disperse protesters in the southern oil hub of Basra on Friday as thousands of Iraqis rallied around the nation against corrupt officials and poor basic services.

Demonstrations against a shortage of jobs, electricity, water and other basic services have been rising as Iraqis, inspired by protests around the Arab world, demand reforms from a formed in December after elections last year.

In central Basra around 700 protesters near the provincial council building were forcibly removed by Iraqi soldiers and police after they refused to stop demonstrating.

A Reuters reporter at the scene said some journalists were also beaten by security forces. A vehicle ban was in effect.

"I have been applying for a job for six years and did not get one so far. They (officials) ask for bribes to employ people," said 30-year-old Noor Mohammed, a graduate from Basra University's engineering faculty.

"I regret electing those people because their democracy is that people should smile at (Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki and should say nothing to him."

Some protesters carried a piece of wood that was carved in the shape of Iraq. A medical tube was attached to the wood, symbolizing Iraq as a weak body.

Thousands of Iraqis rallied nationwide last Friday against corruption and poor services. At least 10 people died and scores were wounded in clashes between protesters and security forces.

Unlike other countries in the region where protesters have demanded the ouster of long-ruling autocrats, Iraq saw dictator Saddam Hussein removed eight years ago by a U.S.-led invasion.

But despite having the power to elect their leaders, the public is still widely unhappy with a political system that has left figures with ethnic and sectarian power bases entrenched in office and failed so far to restore basic services.

Many protests have taken place provincial capitals, where Iraq's decentralized system concentrates power in the hands of regional bosses.

On Friday, around 3,000 people gathered in Celebration Square in Mosul to protest against corruption. Some held pictures of relatives who were killed in last Friday's protests.

Hundreds also rallied in the southern towns of Nassiriya, Garma and Faw. A vehicle ban was in effect in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Sulaimaniya and in Salahuddin province.

100-DAY DEADLINE

Oil-rich Iraq, which has the potential to become a major oil producer, has been slow to develop and re-build infrastructure, badly battered after decades of war and economic sanctions.

In the capital, Baghdad, around 2,000 Iraqis gathered in central Tahrir Square for a second consecutive Friday.

Some carried banners reading "where is the petrol money going Maliki?" and "people want reform," while others called for better education and health systems.

Politicians have moved to soothe anger by cutting their own salaries, doling out free electricity, buying sugar for a food ration program and diverting money from fighter jets to food.

Maliki told his ministers on Sunday they had 100 days to step up reforms or be fired after last Friday's "Day of Rage."

"The 100-day ultimatum Maliki gave will not provide any satisfactory results. I am sure that even if this government is given years, it will not do anything because it is a wishy-washy government and was established on a power-sharing basis," said retired traffic police officer Jamal Farhan.

"These protests will continue until our demands are met," he added, while protesting in Tahrir Square.

Maliki secured a second term last year in a power-sharing deal between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions following nine months of political wrangling after an inconclusive March vote. (Additional reporting by Jamal al-Badrani in Mosul, Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad, Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil; Writing by Serena Chaudhry)

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