Iraqi tribes demand jobs as Basra oil protests grow

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SUADAD AL-SALHY

BAGHDAD: Tribes in southern Iraq blocked more roads and flooded the streets with protesters as demonstrations against foreign and local oil companies grew on Wednesday.

Anger has grown in Basra, the country’s main oil hub, since police opened fire on demonstrators who gathered at the entrance of an oil company on Sunday to demand jobs. One protester was killed and three were injured.

The tribe of the victim demanded that Iraqi forces hand over the perpetrators for punishment or reveal their identities. The government’s refusal to respond to the request has fueled anger in the city.

Basra is the main source of the country’s wealth, but the local population sees little of the benefit.

More than 13 tribes on Wednesday announced they were backing the request of the Bani Mansour, the tribe of the protester killed by police.

Meanwhile, thousands of protesters took to the streets in downtown of Basra and its outskirts.

Hundreds more blocked main roads leading to Rumaila, home of the biggest oil fields in the country.

Protests were planned “to restrict the movement of the workers of the oil and gas sector,” an organizer told Arab News. Some roads were blocked with dirt barriers while burning tires were placed across others.

Iraqi security forces in Basra have been on high alert since Sunday and additional troops were deployed along roads leading to the headquarters of oil companies and oil fields. Foreign firms have evacuated senior staff from West Qurna to southern Rumaila, and “have activated contingency plans to address any potential risks,” a local security adviser told Arab News.

The Iraqi Ministry of Oil, which supervises the work of hundreds of foreign, Arab and local oil companies in Basra, advised local staff to organize their work according to “(the urgent) security conditions and roadblocks.”

Staff were told to work 12-hour shifts and longer to help cover any labor shortfall and to use alternative routes to reach work sites.

A statement signed by the heads of Basra’s tribes laid out their main grievances.

“We ask the oil companies to improve the infrastructure of the towns and villages where these companies are operating in Qurna and Medaina,” it said.

The tribes also called for improvements in water and electricity supplies, hospitals and roads.

Iraq has suffered from a severe lack of basic services since 1991. Southern provinces, especially Basra, are among the worst affected by high poverty and unemployment.

Local officials insist that 139,000 locals from Basra are employed in the oil and gas sector there, compared with more than 50,000 foreign and Iraqi workers from outside Basra. But protesters have demanded the expulsion of workers from outside the region to provide more work opportunities for locals.

“It is true that the largest number of workers in these (oil and gas) companies are from Basra, but it is still unsatisfactory,” Ali Shaddad Al-Faris, head of the Basra Provincial Council’s oil and gas committee, told Arab News.

“We have already asked the big oil companies to open centers to qualify the locals for more jobs.

“They (the companies) have expressed their readiness, but the Ministry of Oil, which is the only body authorized to ask them, is not interested in developing the skills of youth or improving the situation.”

The protest on Sunday was initially against severe electricity shortages, but anger was quickly redirected toward the oil companies.

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