BAGHDAD (AP) - Iraqis demanding better public services and jobs took to the streets for the sixth day on Sunday in the southern oil-rich province of Basra, as authorities put security forces on high alert and blocked the internet in the country's Shiite heartland.
The protests come at a sensitive time as Iraq awaitis the final results of a partial recount of the ballots from May's national elections before a new government can be formed. The elections, the fourth since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled ruler Saddam Hussein, saw the lowest turnout in 15 years and were marred with allegations of fraud and irregularities.
Thousands of protesters gathered outside the local government building and closed the roads leading to major oil fields north and west of Basra city of, activist Laith Hussein told The Associated Press by phone.
Security forces guarding the local government building opened fire, causing some protesters to disperse, he added.
Elsewhere in Basra, protesters forced authorities to close the vital Um Qasr port on the Persian Gulf, planning to march to the border crossings with Kuwait and Iran, he added.
The two main border crossings - Safwan with Kuwait and Shalamcheh with Iran - have been closed to both passengers and goods, a senior official with the Border Crossings Directorate told the AP. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with government regulations.
He could not confirm if there were fatalities from either incident. Health and police officials were not immediately available to comment.
Around noon on Sunday, Basra anti-riot police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse the protesters, said Sadiq Saleh, one of the demonstrators.
"I will not leave my place here until I get all my rights," said the 35-year-old who has been out of work for the past three years. "The government lies to us, they always give us such promises and we get nothing."
There were also similar protests on Saturday in Baghdad. Hundreds poured into Baghdad's Tahrir Square and the eastern Shiite district of Sadr City. Some protesters set tires on fire and tried to break into the Badr Organization's office in Sadr City, prompting guards to open fire. No casualties were reported.
Citing security concerns, Kuwait Airways, the Royal Jordanian and Iran's Aviation Authority suspended their flights to Iraq's second busiest airport in Najaf. Flights to other Iraqi airports have not been affected. The United Arab Emirates' FlyDubai cancelled Saturday's flights to Najaf, saying it will suspend them until July 22.
In a bid to contain the protests, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi convened a six-minister committee headed by the oil minister, Jabar Ali al-Luaibi. The committee promised jobs for those living in the areas around the oil fields and announced allocations for urgent projects, mainly for water provision.
On Friday, al-Abadi flew to Basra from the NATO summit in Brussels to try to diffuse the unrest. He also asked the state-run Basra Oil Company to provide more jobs to locals and announced urgent allocations.
But that didn't appear to assuage the protesters.
"These announcements are just anesthetization to the residents of Basra," Hussein, the activist, said. "Every year, they make the same promises, and nothing happens on the ground."
The only solution is "to replace the current faces that represent the parties that failed to develop Basra by new faces from new political parties from Basra itself," he added.
Like other locals, Hussein demanded that Baghdad empower the new, local Basra government.
The demonstrations were given a boost after a representative of the Shiite community's spiritual leader, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, offered his solidarity with the protesters during Friday's prayer sermon, but called for peaceful demonstrations.
Basra is Iraq's second-largest province and home to about 70 percent of the country's proven oil reserves of 153.1 billion barrels. It is located on the Persian Gulf bordering Kuwait and Iran, and is Iraq's only hub these days for all oil exports to the international market.
Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Karin Laub in Amman, Jordan, David Rising in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.