Iraqis step up protest in job and food crisis

Despite crackdown by security forces, Iraqis continue protests over food, power, and job shortages for a third day

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BAGHDAD // Protesters who stormed government buildings and a police station in a small, poor southern Iraqi town on Thursday continued their demonstrations yesterday, despite a crackdown by security forces.

Angry residents in Hamza, in Diwaniya province, 180 kilometres south of Baghdad, took to the streets for a third day yesterday after protests over shortages of power, food and jobs, as well as political corruption, turned violent.

According to demonstrators, at least one was shot and killed and another four were injured on Thursday when security men opened fire after the crowd tried to storm a police station. Officials in Hamza confirmed four people had been wounded but denied any deaths. They said police had been forced to respond after protesters threw stones and petrol bombs at them.

"There will be a revolution of the hungry and the jobless in Iraq, just as there was in Egypt," said Abu Ali, who helped organise the demonstration.

"It was a march by the unemployed, by those who have lost hope and who see [the prime minister] Nouri al Maliki and the new government becoming another dictatorship," he said.

The main road between Hamza and Diwaniya city, the provincial capital, was blockaded on Friday, with protesters manning barricades of burning tyres stopping traffic.

Diwaniya has a majority Shiite population and is one of Iraq's poorest provinces but it is by no means unique in suffering from unemployment, shortage of electricity and prohibitively expensive prices of drinking water. Residents say little has changed for the better in the eight years since Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Some complain the situation is worse because government-provided food rations are being cut, leaving the poorest families unable to feed themselves properly. There is also growing disillusionment with politicians, both on the local council and in Baghdad, widely accused of enriching themselves while doing nothing for the masses.

"We see the politicians on television awarding themselves US$100 million [Dh367m] to buy armoured cars for their safety, yet we get nothing," said Rashid Abd Ali, an unemployed man who took part in the protests. "We protested today and we will keep protesting until the government listens and takes action," said Mr Ali, who has eight dependents.

Influential Islamic scholars used Friday prayers to convey a similar message, warning Iraq's politicians that, while elected, they should not consider themselves immune to the kind of popular demonstrations seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Jordan.

"All governments, even democracies, must study the main reasons that have led to this public anger against their regimes, which started in Tunisia," said Abdul Mahdi al Karbalai, a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.

"A lot has changed in Iraq ... but there is no social justice," he said.

The revolt in Hamza reflected nationwide anger at service shortages and perceived government failures, said Karima al Jawari, an MP with the Iraqiyya bloc. She warned that unrest could rapidly spread nationwide and, with protests in the Husseineyah district of Baghdad, also over poor services, there were indications that the process has begun.

"Iraq is boiling and it could blow up at any moment," she said.

"There needs to be a rapid response to these issues, jobs need to be created and there must be fast improvements in public services, otherwise Iraq will see revolution.

"The people are sending their message to the prime minister, to Ayad Allawi [Iraqiyya's leader] and all of the politicians that we must pay immediate attention to their needs."

In Diwaniya, a local university professor, Nidal al Sarmad, who also took part in the protests, said anger towards the government was "swelling in the chests of Iraqis" and that a nationwide revolution was "close at hand".

"The people feel they have been deceived, they are frustrated," he said. "The change the Americans brought has brought us a new set of thieves, a new set of dictators, not justice and freedom."

Opponents of Nouri al Maliki, the prime minister, have accused him of destroying Iraq's fledgling democracy after taking over control of previously independent institutions, including the organisation charged with running national elections. He also retains personal control over the ministries of defence, interior and national security, as yet failing to appoint ministers to these positions.

Mr al Maliki yesterday pledged he would not run for a third term. He said he would seek to amend the constitution so that all prime ministers would be limited to two terms.