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Iraqis take to streets in oil hub, decry living standards

By Nabil al-Jurani
Associated Press / February 19, 2011

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BASRA, Iraq — Iraqis demanding better public services, jobs, and pensions blocked a bridge yesterday in the southern oil hub of Basra, as spreading Middle East unrest emboldens Iraqis to take on government officials over poor living standards.

After the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, frustrated Iraqis have staged repeated protests across the country. This week, at least five people were killed when demonstrations in two cities in Iraq turned violent.

About 1,000 people rallied yesterday in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, to demand the resignation of the provincial governor, who they said has failed to boost the quality of life, even as security improves.

The city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, is a microcosm of postwar Iraq’s many woes.

“We’re living in miserable conditions: no electricity; dirty, muddy streets,’’ said one of the protesters, Qais Jabbar. “We have to make changes.’’

The 32-year-old father of three said that despite having a college degree, he works as a taxi driver and shares a small house with his three brothers and their families in eastern Basra.

Basra is the hub of the oil industry in a country that has some of the largest oil reserves in the world. But little of that wealth has trickled down to the city’s people.

Poor settlements ring the city. Piles of garbage and pools of stagnant water and sewage blot its dust-covered streets, where donkeys, stray dogs, sheep, and goats roam. As in many of Iraq’s cities, the well-off turn on generators during the frequent electricity shortages while Basra’s poor residents swelter for hours in the summer.

Last summer, protests focusing on a lack of electricity were orchestrated by followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. But this time the Sadrists, now a central part of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government, said they are not playing a role in the demonstrations, which instead seem to be driven by a medley of political groups, nongovernmental organizations, and a frustrated public.

Economic frustration has spread to railway workers, who said they will go on strike Monday.

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