Protest over power cuts turns deadly in Iraq, underscoring rising anger over lack of services

By Hadeel Al-shalchi, AP
Saturday, June 19, 2010

Anger over power cuts leads to violence in Iraq

BAGHDAD — A protest over electricity shortages in oil-rich southern Iraq turned deadly when police opened fire to disperse the crowd on Saturday, killing one protester in a melee that warned of growing anger over the government’s failure to provide basic services.

More than 3,000 protesters marched through Basra, which suffers from searing summer temperatures that can reach 120 degrees (50 degrees Celsius) and high humidity. They carried banners and chanted angry slogans demanding a solution to the power cuts that persist despite billions of dollars in reconstruction money since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

It was a scene that has become more frequent across the nation as patience wears thin among Iraqis struggling to cope with less than six hours of electricity a day.

But the demonstration turned violent when protesters started throwing stones and advanced on the Basra provincial council building, setting fire to a guard’s cabin and prompting government security forces to fire into the air to disperse the crowd.

Police and hospital officials said one man was killed and three others wounded.

The Iraqi public has become increasingly frustrated over the government’s inability to provide power, clean water and other utilities despite security gains that have led to a sharp drop in war-related violence in recent years.

In another case of anger boiling over into violence, gunmen killed an employee of a local irrigation department and three of his family members Friday west of Baghdad — the latest in a series of attacks stemming from a tribal dispute over water distribution in the Abu Ghraib area.

Within hours of the protester’s death in Basra, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered a delegation of officials to Basra to address their concerns. He urged restraint, saying those responsible for the shortage would be punished, but he didn’t spell out how the stubbornly persistent problem would be remedied.

Provincial council member Ahmed al-Suleiti said the governor would form a committee to investigate the protester’s death.

Complicating the issue is the failure of Iraq’s politicians to reach agreement on a new government more than three months after inconclusive March 7 elections.

Attacks also continue to plague Iraqi civilians, with a series of nighttime blasts killing at least five people in mainly Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad.

The attacks included a rocket that slammed into a house in eastern Baghdad, killing at least two people and wounding three others.

Three bombs exploded in quick succession elsewhere in the capital, killing three civilians and wounding 14 others, including four policemen struck as they arrived to help, officials said.

The violence was reported by Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

Iraq’s electrical woes have long been a source of discontent among the public, with Iraqi families forced to spend more than $50 a month on private generators to make up for the frequent power outages. But many can’t afford the cost, leading them to pilfer electricity from other buildings and government offices.

The decline of the electrical grid began during the 1991 Gulf War, when it was targeted by U.S. warplanes. Facilities were further damaged during the 2003 invasion and the subsequent looting and insurgent attacks.

U.S. Army engineers tried to fix the grid immediately after Saddam Hussein’s ouster, but the effort foundered in the face of barely operating power plants suffering from years of neglect brought on by wars and U.N. trade sanctions.

Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, 340 miles (550 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad, has an average of less than two hours of electricity a day, according to Ziyad Ali, head of the provincial council’s electricity committee. Without even fans to cool them people spend sleepless nights on their roofs or in their gardens to escape the heat.

The Ministry of Electricity said power generation was supposed to get a boost in mid-June after an overhaul of several power stations. But the program faced several unexpected problems, including one station in Basra that went off line.

“This maintenance program was supposed to raise the electricity production, but we were faced with several unexpected problems,” ministry spokesman Ibrahim Zeidan said.

Officials also have blamed a delay in the fuel imported from Kuwait and Iraq needed for the power plants. Zeidan said his ministry needs about 2.4 million gallons (9 million liters) of fuel a day to generate power but the Oil Ministry is providing less than 670,000 gallons (2.5 million liters).

Zeidan said there was also a lack of coordination and cooperation between the provincial council and the electricity officials in Basra, and fairer distribution plan for the city’s residential areas needed to be drawn up.

The topic has even come in the weekly Friday sermons.

An aide to Iraq’s most revered Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called for a “partial solution” to be found to alleviate the suffering of people this summer, saying the problem was shaking people’s trust in officials.

“Let the officials feel the suffering of the people and try to live 18 or 20 hours without electricity,” Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie said during his sermon Friday in Karbala. “If they do so they will try to find a quick solution to the problem.”

Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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