BAGHDAD: Tribes in southern Iraq blocked more roads and deployed extra protesters on to the streets as demonstrations against foreign and local companies running the region’s oil fields escalated on Wednesday.
Anger has grown in Basra, the country’s main oil hub, after police opened fire on Sunday to disperse demonstrators who had gathered at the entrance of an oil company to demand jobs. One man was killed and three were injured.
The tribe of the victim demanded that the Iraqi forces hand over the perpetrators for punishment or reveal their identities. But the Iraqi government's refusal to respond to the request has fueled anger in the city which is the main source of the country’s wealth but where the local population see little of the benefit.
More than 13 tribes on Wednesday announced they were backing the request of the Bani Mansour, the tribe of the killed protestor.
Meanwhile thousands of protesters took to the streets in downtown of Basra and its outskirts.
Hundreds more blocked the main roads leading to Rumaila, home of the biggest oil fields in the country “to restrict the movement of the workers of the oil and gas sector,” an organizer of the demonstrations told Arab News. Some roads were blocked with dirt barriers while burned tires were positioned across others.
Iraqi security forces in Basra have been on high alert since Sunday and additional armed troops were deployed along the roads leading to the headquarters of oil companies and oil fields. Foreign oil companies have evacuated their senior staff from West Qurna to southern Rumaila and “have activated their contingency plans to address any potential risks,” a local security advisor of oil companies told Arab News.
The Iraqi Ministry of Oil, which supervises the work of hundreds of foreign, Arab and local oil companies in Basra, also issued new instructions to its local staff to organize their work according to “(the urgent) security conditions and roadblocks.” The advisory said they should be working more than 12 hour shifts to help cover any shortfall in labour 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,” the statement said.
It called for improving water and electricity supplies, and improving hospitals and roads.
Iraq has suffered from a severe lack of basic services since 1991.
The southern provinces, especially Basra, are among the most 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 to more than 50,000 foreign and Iraqi workers from outside Basra. But the demonstrators have demanded the expulsion of workers from outside the region to provide more employment 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, the head of Oil and Gas Committee within the Basra Provincial Council 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.”
Sunday’s demonstration was initially protesting against severe electricity shortages but the anger was quickly redirected towards the oil companies.