Thousands of protesters in and around Baghdad and southern Iraq have railed against lawmakers' lavish benefits, despite heavy security measures that kept many away, particularly in the capital.

Demonstrators criticised lawmakers' retirement benefits in particular, which amount to thousands of dollars a month and stand in marked contrast to the daily struggle for many Iraqis who lack even dependable electricity and sewerage services.

"A huge amount of money goes to these people," said Aamer Qasim, a pharmacist who attended a demonstration in the centre of Baghdad with several colleagues.

"The money should be spent on health, on education, on electricity, on infrastructure."

Iraqi politicians have faced consistent criticism for their lavish pay and benefits, which in sum are several times that of the average citizen.

But anger has grown in recent in weeks in particular over the benefits awarded to them after they leave parliament.

Protests on Saturday were also held in several cities in south Iraq, including the port city of Basra as well as Nasiriyah, Najaf, Karbala, Kut and Hilla.

Protest dispersed

Riot police armed with batons, tear gas and water canon broke up one gathering in the city of Nasiriyah.

Witnesses and security forces said 11 people were wounded and 10 detained.

Authorities did not grant permission for the demonstrations in the capital, drawing criticism from rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Security forces blocked bridges and deployed large numbers of soldiers and police in major squares - an extraordinary show of force that protesters said was mainly taken to prevent demonstrators from congregating in larger numbers.

Interior Ministry spokesman Saad Maan Ibrahim defended the security operation, saying authorities were concerned suicide bombers might try to attack the rallies. He insisted authorities had no problem with the demonstrations and that his forces were present only to protect protesters.

Iraq has seen a marked rise in the level of violence this year. More than 600 people have already been killed so far this month, according to an AFP tally.

In the latest attack, a car bomb killed 12 people and wounded at least 20 in the city of Ramadi on Saturday.

The attack took place near a checkpoint on a busy street in the centre of Ramadi, 100km west of Baghdad.

"The explosion was so huge. I saw pieces of cars and bodies," witness Qasim Mohammed said. He said he had been working in his photography shop when the attack took place.

"A tyre hit my shop," he said.

Another bomb in Maeden, southeast of Baghdad, killed one person and wounded seven, police and medics said.

Source: Agencies