BASRA, IRAQ - Flames engulfed several government buildings in the southern Iraqi city of Basra Thursday, as protesters again took to the streets over poor public services.
Oil-rich Basra has been the epicenter of demonstrations that have rocked Iraq since July, with anger fueled by pollution of the water supply that has left 30,000 people hospitalized.
Seven protesters have been killed since Tuesday as crowds have clashed with security forces and hurled Molotov cocktails at the regional government headquarters.
Thousands of demonstrators converged in central Basra again Thursday after local officials decided to scrap a curfew imposed by central authorities in Baghdad.
No clashes were reported but fire was seen spreading around the massive government complex, with witnesses saying it tore through offices housing state TV channel Iraqiya.
It was unclear if the blaze started as the result of a fresh attack with incendiary devices or was due to earlier fires that emergency services had failed to extinguish.
AFP journalists also reported that the nearby governor’s residence was alight, while witnesses and sources said fires were raging at the local offices of several political organizations.
At least 22 people have been killed in the demonstrations since they erupted in Basra on July 8.
Rights activists have accused the security forces of opening fire on the demonstrators, while the government has blamed provocateurs in the crowds and say troops have been ordered not to use live rounds.
“The people protest and the government doesn’t care, treats them as vandals,” said Ali Saad, a 25-year-old at the rally Thursday in Basra.
“Nobody (here) is a vandal: the people are fed up, so yes they throw stones and burn tires because nobody cares,” he told AFP near the building littered with debris.
Ahmed Kazem, who was also at the protest, urged leaders to respond to the demands of the demonstrators “so that the situation doesn’t degenerate.
The 42-year-old said their demands included “public services, water, electricity and jobs.”
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has scrambled to defuse the anger and authorities have pledged a multibillion dollar emergency plan to revive infrastructure and services in southern Iraq.
But Iraqis remain deeply skeptical as the country remains in a state of political limbo after elections in May.
Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, whose political bloc won the largest number of seats, on Thursday called for a special parliamentary session to address protesters’ concerns.
Politicians must present “radical and immediate” solutions at the meeting or step down if they fail to do so, he said.
Abadi responded, saying he was “ready to attend a parliamentary session with the ministers and officials concerned, to discuss the situation and the needs of Basra province.”
The prime minister is trying to hold onto his post in the future government through forming an alliance with Sadr, a former militia chief who has called for Iraq to have greater political independence from neighboring Iran and the United States.