Iraq protesters lock down oil field, call strike

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Iraqi university students take part in an anti-government demonstration in the holy shrine city of Najaf

Iraqi university students take part in an anti-government demonstration in the holy shrine city of Najaf (AFP Photo/Haidar HAMDANI)

Nasiriyah (Iraq) (AFP) - Iraqi anti-government protesters blockaded an oil field and rallied in southern cities Sunday while political factions remained paralysed in their attempts to form a new government.

Several hundred people demanding jobs shut off access to the Nasiriyah field, 300 kilometres (190 miles) south of Baghdad, which produces 82,000 barrels of oil per day, executives said.

The two-day-old blockade is the first to disrupt operations in OPEC's second largest producer since the start of the popular revolt set to enter its fourth month in early January.

The Iraqi oil ministry said the blockade "will not have an impact on production and exports", adding that the national oil company's branch in the southern port of Basra will "compensate for the losses".

Iraq exports around 3.6 million barrels of oil per day.

The youth-led protests demand the ouster of the entire political class that has run the country in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

Demonstrators have vented their fury at what they consider inept politicians who have mismanaged the economy, enriched themselves and are beholden to powerful neighbour Iran.

Sit-in protests have shut down state offices and schools across the Shiite-majority south for weeks, and demonstrators again declared a "general strike" in Diwaniyah on Sunday, the first day of the working week.

Mass rallies and picket lines also paralysed Kut, Hilla, Amara and the shrine city of Najaf, AFP correspondents said.

- Murders and abductions -

The protests have continued despite being met with batons, tear gas and, at times, live rounds in violence that has claimed nearly 460 lives and left some 25,000 people wounded.

The activists scored a partial success in November with the resignation of prime minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, who however remains in charge in a caretaker role.

Pro-Iranian and other political factions have since wrangled over finding a replacement -- so far without success.

And although parliament has just voted for an electoral reform package, there has been no indication that the early polls many citizens are calling for will be held anytime soon.

Heightening the turmoil, President Barham Saleh last week threatened to resign rather than put forward the name of a pro-Iran candidate to form the next government.

Nasiriyah student demonstrator Osama Ali praised the head of state, saying he had "foiled the attempts by parties and militiamen to kill off the revolution to protect their own interests".

"This gives us hope to continue our peaceful movement until we obtain all our demands," he told AFP.

Those demands include an end to a system that doles out state jobs according to ethnicity and religion, and a stop to the endemic corruption estimated to have swallowed up twice Iraq's gross domestic product (GDP) in 16 years.

The protesters also want justice for those activists who have been murdered, many shot dead in the streets or outside their homes.

Dozens have also reported being abducted to a rural area near Baghdad for several hours or days before being abandoned by the roadside.

The United Nations has accused "militias" of waging a sweeping campaign of threats, kidnappings and murders of demonstrators.

The state-run Human Rights Commission says it has still not heard from 56 missing activists.