Dozens wounded as south Iraq protesters clash with police

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Iraqi riot police line up as protesters chant slogans and hold up signs during a demonstration in Basra on July 15, 2018

Dozens of demonstrators were wounded in southern Iraq on Sunday in clashes with police as protests over unemployment and a lack of basic services entered a second week, officials said.

The protests hit several provinces including Basra, despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announcing fresh funds and pledges of investment for the oil-rich but neglected region.

The internet was of service across the country on Sunday for the second consecutive day.

In the city of Basra, demonstrators tried to storm the governor's headquarters but were dispersed by police who fired tear gas at them, an AFP reporter said.

Police also fired tear gas at stone-throwing demonstrators who tried to push their way into the Zubeir oil field south of the city, the reporter said.

In Nasiriyah, provincial capital of neighbouring Dhi Qar province, 15 demonstrators and 25 policemen were injured, deputy health director Abdel Hussein al-Jabri said.

The clashes, including hand-to-hand combat, erupted when the demonstrators gathered outside the governor's office and pelted security forces with stones.

In Muthana province bordering Basra, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the governor's headquarters and some torched parts of the building, a police source said.

Protesters in Muthana also set fire to the offices of the Iranian-backed Badr organisation in the province's largest city of Samawa.

On Saturday, protesters had set alight Badr's headquarters in Basra, prompting authorities to impose an overnight curfew across the whole province.

- Flights cancelled -

As the protests continued Abadi met with security and intelligence chiefs in the capital Baghdad on Sunday, warning them to be on alert "because terrorists want to exploit any event or dispute".

"Iraqis do not accept chaos, assaults on the security forces, state and private property, and those who do this are vandals who exploit the demands of citizens to cause harm," he said.

The prime minister also ordered security services not to use live fire against the unarmed protesters.

The unrest first erupted on July 8 when security forces opened fire, killing one person, as youths demonstrated in Basra demanding jobs and accusing the government of failing to provide basic services including electricity.

Two protesters died from gunshot wounds following rallies overnight Friday, although it was not clear who killed them.

At least 30 people were wounded on Saturday night in the central holy city of Karbala, where an AFP reporter said police fired into the air as demonstrators threw stones at them.

The demonstrations have also led to international flights to the shrine city of Najaf being cancelled, as the airport was closed after dozens of protesters forced their way into the waiting room Friday despite a heavy police presence.

Foreign airlines including Oman Air, flydubai and Royal Jordanian have all announced the suspension of flights.

The government's media office said Abadi has ordered the airport to reopen, without giving further details.

Protests continued Sunday morning in Najaf city, where an AFP correspondent said security forces dispersed a large protest.

A sizeable contingent from Saraya al-Salam, a paramilitary force loyal to prominent Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr who won May elections, also deployed in the streets of Najaf.

- Promise of state spending -

The protests -- which have spread north to Baghdad -- come as Iraq struggles to rebuild after three-year war against Islamic State group jihadists, which has ravaged their country's infrastructure.

On Saturday evening, Abadi announced investment worth $3 billion (2.6 billion euros) for Basra province, as well as pledging additional spending on housing, schools and services.

"When the state responds to citizens' demands it is a strength, not a weakness," Abadi said during Sunday's meeting with top officials.

The country has been rocked by a series of conflicts since the 1980s and says it needs $88 billion to rebuild after the war on IS jiahdists.

Officially, 10.8 percent of Iraqis are jobless, while youth unemployment is twice as high, in a country where 60 percent of the population is aged under 24.

The oil sector accounts for 89 percent of the state budget and 99 percent of Iraq's export revenues, but only one percent of jobs, as the majority of posts are filled by foreigners.

Iraqi riot police line up as protesters chant slogans and hold up signs during a demonstration in Basra on July 15, 2018

Protesters burn tyres during a demonstration against unemployment and a lack of basic services, in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on July 15, 2018

A member of the Iraqi security forces receives water from a protester in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on July 15, 2018

Protesters react as Iraqi security forces fire tear gas during a demonstration in the southern city of Basra on July 15, 2018