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Iraq PM Heads to Oil-Rich Basra After Violent Protests

FILE - Iraqi Prime minister Haider Al-Abadi.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi went to Basra on Friday hoping to restore calm in the southern city, which has been gripped by protests over unemployment, his office said.

Abadi flew straight into the city from Brussels where he attended a NATO summit to discuss the Islamic State group and immediately held talks with officials, a statement said.

As Abadi met the governor of the oil-rich province and the head of the head of the power company, Iraq's top Shiite authority voiced support for the protesters, calling Basra one of Iraq's "most miserable areas".

"It is not fair and it is never acceptable that this generous province is one of the most miserable areas in Iraq," Abdel Mehdi al-Karbalai, the representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said at Friday prayers in Karbala.

Giving the weekly sermon, Karbalai said many residents of Basra "are suffering from a lack of public services" and urged the "federal and local government to deal seriously with the demands of citizens and work urgently to do what can be done."

Demonstrations have been ongoing over the past several days, with protesters in some cases setting tires ablaze to block roads and trying to storm government installations.

The protests erupted on Sunday and security forces opened fire killing a protester, sparking further anger.

As well as unemployment, protesters are frustrated by rising living costs and a lack of basic services in the city, the capital of Basra province.

There were further protests on Friday morning and calls for a demonstration in the afternoon in front of the local provincial headquarters.

Karbalai urged the demonstrators to refrain from violence, warning them against being influenced by "unruly individuals or those acting in self-interest".

Oil wealth but jobless

In an apparent first step to calm frayed nerves, Abadi ordered local officials to sort out "the legal status" of security guards employed by the interior ministry at oil installations, his office said.

These guards receive no benefits and work without contracts unlike their peers at the interior ministry.

A statement from the premier's office said Abadi instructed local officials to "solve the issue of the contracts of the security guards... and regularize their legal status".

On Thursday Oil Minister Jabbar al-Luaibi said protesters tried to break into an oil installation in the West Qurna 2 oil field of Basra province.

In a statement released by his office, Luaibi said the demonstrators failed to enter the area but had set fire to a gate and a security post.

Officially, 10.8 percent of Iraqis are jobless, while youth unemployment is twice as high in a country where 60 percent of the population are aged under 24.

Abadi has vowed to rebuild the economy, ravaged by years of conflict, but frustrations have been growing especially in the oil-rich south.

Iraq is the second biggest producer of crude in the OPEC oil cartel, with 153 billion barrels of proven reserves.

The oil sector accounts for 89 percent of the state budget and 99 percent of Iraq's export revenues, but only one percent of jobs as the majority of posts are filled by foreigners.