BAGHDAD — Thousands of demonstrators surged through the sweltering streets of Iraq’s second-largest city to protest persistent shortages of electricity on Saturday, clashing with the police in a disturbance that underlined the growing popular anger here over the Iraqi government’s inability to provide the basic necessities of life.
One person was killed when the police opened fire on the demonstrators, who were throwing rocks at the provincial headquarters in Basra. But the symbolism of the event may prove greater than the death toll: Diplomats, officials and politicians have warned that popular frustration over basic services is escalating significantly as summer temperatures climb past 110 degrees and more months pass without a new government.
Voters went to the polls on March 7 after a campaign dominated by promises of more jobs, electricity, housing and better drinking water. None of those pledges has been fulfilled as deadlocked negotiations over a governing coalition threaten to drag into the fall.
“The government should know that the people have been waiting for a long time now,” said Samir Kadhum, a 34-year-old protester. “We’re no longer patient.” Another, 29-year-old Qaisar Banwan, promised “a revolution of electricity.”
From the very first days of the American occupation, until now, electricity has proven a constant in the suffering of Iraq’s people. The lack of it helped shape sentiments in the summer of 2003 toward the American military, which inherited utilities already crumbling from decades of wars and sanctions. Many are dumbfounded that, seven years later, it remains so scarce, despite billions of dollars in American aid.
Wealthier neighborhoods of Basra have as many as eight hours of city electricity a day; during blackouts, they can also afford the $50 or more a month for power from a generator shared by several blocks. The city’s poorer neighborhoods, by far the majority, often have just one hour of electricity a day, a situation not uncommon in Baghdad and other regions. The temperature in Basra on Saturday was 113 degrees.
Sewage still gathers in the streets; the city, about 340 miles southeast of Baghdad and humid because of its proximity to the Persian Gulf, is one of Iraq’s most decrepit.
The protest was organized by followers of Moktada al-Sadr, a populist cleric whose movement has long managed to straddle the divide between high politics in the capital and the popular sentiments of the street. Mr. Sadr’s group was one of the most successful in the March 7 vote, and his lawmakers are deeply involved in the negotiations over a new government. But they still cast themselves as outsiders, and at Friday Prayer and elsewhere, the movement’s clerics insist that they are representing the people’s demands.
The protest gathered before the provincial headquarters, where residents ruefully noted that Basra is located in an oil-rich region. “Prison is more comfortable than our homes,” one banner read. The protest turned violent when demonstrators began throwing rocks and security forces opened fire. Three people were also wounded, and officials in Basra said they would investigate the shooting of the protester who died.
Some of the protest’s leaders said more demonstrations were planned.
“We’re going to keep demonstrating until the government meets our simplest needs,” said Mohammed al-Bahadli, a 41-year-old cleric and protest organizer.
Hours after the protest, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered a delegation to travel to Basra to address the problem. The group met provincial officials Saturday night, but there was no word on what, if anything, would be done.
An Iraqi employee of The New York Times contributed from Basra, Iraq.