Thousands of Iraqis upset about poor city services marched peacefully through the streets of Basra on Monday, demanding the provincial governor's resignation despite calls by top government officials a day earlier to call off the protest.
Some 3,000 demonstrators gathered near the Basra mosque, then marched a few hundred meters (yards) to the governor's office, which was surrounded by Iraqi soldiers and police officers. A small number of the demonstrators carried light weapons.
"We call for the resignation of the Basra governor," read one banner carried by demonstrators. "We call for the government to remove the governor," read another. Others waved Iraqi flags and chanted "No, no to the governor!"
Protesters dispersed peacefully after a few hours, and called for a three-day sit-in in front of the governor's office starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday. If their demands are not met within three days, the sit-in could be extended, they said.
Basra is Iraq's second-largest city, situated 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki contacted religious and political leaders in Basra and won their promise to cancel the planned protest, his office said in a statement.
Complaints against the governor should be dealt with through the democratic process, the statement said.
Leaflets distributed after Friday prayers in Basra called for a peaceful march early Monday to seek Gov. Mohammed al-Waili's resignation. Residents have complained of inadequate electricity, garbage disposal and water supplies.
The leaflets were signed by the previously unknown "Basra Mobs," but residents said the name was a cover for followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. A dozen people were wounded last month when his Mahdi Army fighters clashed with those of the rival Shiite Fadhila party. Al-Waili is a Fadhila member.
The Fadhila party, which has 15 seats in parliament, recently withdrew from Shiite United Iraqi Alliance bloc, the largest group in the legislature.
Parliament speaker Mahmoud al-Mashhadani said during a parliament session Sunday that "the situation has to be calm. We are passing through difficult periods and demonstrations are not the solution."
Al-Mashhadani added that "those who demonstrate peacefully should take responsibility for any possible violation. Why risk it and take the responsibility?"
During the same session, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh warned that "any undermining of security and stability in Basra will not only affect Basra, but the whole country."
Saleh was referring to the oil industry in Basra, where about 1.6 million barrels of oil are exported daily.
Al-Waili, the governor, told reporters Saturday that he feared the demonstrators planned to storm his office and kill him, then take control of government banks and a state-run oil company.