BAGHDAD – A protest over electricity shortages in oil-rich southern Iraq turned deadly when police opened fire to disperse the crowd on Saturday. One protester died in the melee.

More than 3,000 protesters marched through Basra, which suffers from searing summer temperatures that can reach 120 degrees 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 died and three others were 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.

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.

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 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 exhausting, sleepless nights on their roofs or in their gardens to escape the heat.


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