BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s electricity minister resigned Monday after days of protests over crippling power cuts that have stoked tensions following a March election which has yet to produce a new government.
Hours after demonstrators hurled rocks at police in the southern city of Nassiriya, minister Karim Waheed told Iraqiya state television he was stepping down because of the failure to provide enough power, seven years after the U.S.-led invasion.
His resignation met a demand from protesters in Nassiriya, and of others who clashed with police in the southern oil hub of Basra Saturday. Two Basra protesters died after police opened fire.
“Because Iraqis are not capable of being patient in their suffering, which would be alleviated by the projects I mentioned that will eliminate the shortages of electricity, and as this matter has been politicized on all sides, I am declaring in front of you with courage my resignation,” Waheed said.
The outcry over power cuts, as summer temperatures soared above 50 degrees Celsius, has increased tension 3 1/2 months after the March 7 vote which produced no outright winner.
Disagreement over who should be prime minister and the distribution of other posts has held up the formation of a new government, and created a vacuum that suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents have sought to exploit through bombings and killings.
At least 26 people died Sunday when two suicide bombers rammed explosives-packed vehicles into the gate of the state-run Trade Bank of Iraq and 18 died the previous Sunday in an assault by suicide bombers on the Central Bank. Al Qaeda’s Iraq offshoot claimed responsibility for the June 13 Central Bank attack.
Iraqi police fired water cannon Monday to disperse the stone-throwing protesters in Nassiriya.
Nassiriya provincial council spokesman Nasif al-Hashemi said 14 policemen were wounded in the clashes.
Provincial officials allied to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki say they perceive political forces behind the protests, trying to influence coalition talks in which Maliki is bidding for a second term over the objections of some Shi‘ite rivals.
“There were some infiltrators among the demonstrators, who started throwing stones at security forces,” Hashemi said.
Beyond the political undercurrent, there is widespread anger in Iraq over electricity supplies, which are still limited to just a few hours per day, seven years after the U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis had hoped the March election would usher in a new period of stability and improved basic services after years of sectarian warfare and bloodshed.
The south, where Basra and Nassiriya are located, is rich in oil and pivotal to Iraq’s bid to become a top oil producer on the back of multi-billion-dollar deals signed by the outgoing government with companies like BP and Royal Dutch Shell.
But electricity plants are running at about two-thirds of their 11,000-megawatt capacity, battered by insurgent attacks and years of neglect.
The Electricity Ministry ordered increased supplies to the south, at the expense of state institutions and companies which can afford generator back-up.
A Nassiriya police spokesman said police “received strict instructions not to use force against the demonstrators - to absorb their anger and provide security.”
The orders followed a statement Sunday by Shi‘ite Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi supporting the right to peaceful demonstration for improved services. Shedding the blood of the Iraqi people is a “red line” that could not be crossed, he said.
Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed in Basra and Wathiq Ibrahim in Baghdad; Writing by Matt Robinson and Michael Christie; Editing by Ralph Boulton