Scores wounded as protesters clash with police across southern Iraq

Protesters die in southern Iraq

About 200 protesters gathered at the main entrance to Iraq's Siba natural gas field on Monday, police and energy sources said, following a week of unrest over poor services sweeping southern cities.

"Hundreds of people tried to storm a courthouse. We prevented them by using water cannons and tear gas", said one of the police sources.

The arrests started on Sunday night, with police chasing protesters down main roads and alleys following demonstrations in the city of Basra, and also in the countryside and around oil fields, two activists told The Associated Press. The clashes, including hand-to-hand combat, erupted when the demonstrators gathered outside the governor's office and pelted security forces with stones.

Demonstrators have taken to streets in southern Iraqi cities to protest the economy. Thirteen protesters and seven policemen were wounded in the clashes.

Iraq's leading Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, had expressed solidarity with protesters on Friday, saying they faced an "extreme lack of public services" such as electricity in the suffocating summer heat.

Sistani rarely intervenes in politics but has wide sway over public opinion.

The elections, the fourth since the US-led invasion that toppled ruler Saddam Hussein, saw the lowest turnout in 15 years and were marred with allegations of fraud and irregularities.

In an apparent first step to calm frayed nerves, Abadi in Basra ordered local officials to sort out "the legal status" of security guards employed by the interior ministry at oil facilities, his office said. He held up a piece of cardboard to shield his head from the scorching sun.

In Najaf, the protesters broke into Iraq's second-busiest airport, causing damages to the passenger terminal and delaying fights.

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The demonstrations have also led to worldwide flights to the shrine city of Najaf being canceled, as the airport was closed after dozens of protesters forced their way into the waiting room Friday despite a heavy police presence. A small protest also took place after midnight in the northern Baghdad district of Al-Shula amid a heavy deployment of security forces, a security source told AFP.

A political bloc led by populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr unexpectedly won a majority in May's vote on an anti-corruption platform that had appeal across Iraq's electorate.

Caretaker Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi flew to Basra from a defense summit in Brussels on Friday to try to diffuse the unrest.

Kuwait previous year pledged $2 billion to the reconstruction of Iraq in a conference hosted in Kuwait City that saw dozens of countries attend and pledge a total of $30 billion.

Demonstrators demanding jobs and better government services, have cut off access to the southern Umm Qasr commodities port.

Basra, despite producing most of Iraq's oil, is plagued by crumbling infrastructure and widespread poverty. Almost 59 percent of Iraq's population is under the age of 25.

The government rushed to contain the protests with promises of thousands of jobs, mainly in the oil sector, and an urgent allocation of 3.5 trillion Iraqi dinars ($3 billion) for electricity and water projects.

The nationwide order was issued overnight by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who also serves as the country's commander in chief of the armed forces, in a directive seen by Reuters.

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