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New clashes in Iraq over electricity cuts

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi police fired water cannon Monday to disperse stone-throwing protesters in the southern city of Nassiriya, demonstrating over crippling power cuts that are stoking tensions following a March election.

Nassiriya provincial council spokesman Nasif al-Hashemi said 14 policemen were wounded in the clashes, which followed similar scenes in the southern oil hub of Basra Saturday.

Two people died in Basra, where police opened fire as several thousand protesters demanded the resignation of Electricity Minister Karim Waheed.

Provincial officials allied to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki say they see 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.

The March 7 election produced no outright winner and the failure of Iraq’s political leaders to form a government 3 1/2 months later is fuelling anger among Iraqis seeking stability and improved basic services.

Slogans at the Basra protest suggested a political undercurrent, but beyond political machinations 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 invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

CLERIC’S APPEAL

The south, where Basra and Nassiriya are located, are rich in oil and key 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. In Basra, temperatures regularly surpass 50 degrees Celsius in the summer.

Hashemi said the Electricity Ministry had ordered increased supplies to the region, at the expense of state institutions and companies which can afford generator back-up. Supplies had also been diverted from other regions, he said.

A provincial council official, who asked not to be named, told Reuters: “The demonstrators clashed by hand with the security forces, then riot police moved in with water cannon to disperse the demonstrators.”

He said some protesters were hurt, but a Nassiriya police spokesman said the wounded included only policemen. “We received strict instructions not to use force against the demonstrators - to absorb their anger and provide security,” he said.

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; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Noah Barkin

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