Followers of anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant slogans during a rally demanding better public services, food supplies and more jobs in nationwide protests to pressure their government, in Basra, Iraq Iraq, Friday, Sept. 16, 201 (AP)
Thousands of Iraqis across the country demonstrated on Friday to demand that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki improve power supplies and basic services in a renewed test for his fragile power-sharing coalition.
Hoisting broken electric fans and air conditioners above their heads to symbolize their frustration, crowds thronged the streets of Baghdad and southern cities following a call for demonstrations by radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
More than eight years after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein, many Iraqis remain deeply frustrated at slow economic progress with a lack of power, infrastructure and jobs chief among popular complaints.
"We are protesting against the government that did not fulfil its promises. This time they must meet these demands. We will keep protesting each Friday until they respond," said Rasool Abdul-Razaq, protesting in the southern city of Basra.
Earlier this year Maliki faced angry rallies over basic services, and his government has since turned to a patchwork of short-term measures such as cuts to utility fees and supplying fuel for neighborhood generators to appease protesters.
A powerful, fiercely anti-US cleric, Sadr is a key member of Maliki's coalition. But the protests he is orchestrating put more pressure on the government as it tries to contain violence from militias and insurgents and debates whether US troops should stay on beyond a year-end deadline.
Earlier this month Sadr told the government it must create 50,000 jobs, give Iraqis more of a share of the OPEC nation's oil wealth and step up reforms or face protests.
More than 10,000 Sadr supporters rallied in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad, the main stronghold of the cleric's movement. Some carried coffins draped in black cloth.
A sign on one coffin read "Electricity, out of service" and another asked "Where is my share of the oil?" Other protesters carried empty oil barrels.
In Hilla, south of the capital, another 5,000 protesters took to the streets in front of Sadr's local office. Thousands more rallied in the southern cities of Najaf and Basra, chanting slogans against Maliki.
Inspired by uprisings in the Arab world, Iraqis staged protests in February, but their demands have focused on jobs, better food rations and services rather than for the ouster of Maliki's elected government.
Violence in Iraq has eased since the height of sectarian slaughter four years ago, but al Qaeda-linked Sunni insurgents and Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias still carry out daily attacks and bombings.