Iraq Kurdish protesters take to streets to demand Barzani removal
ERBIL (Kurdistan Region) - Thousands of people took to the streets of several towns in Iraq's Kurdistan region on Saturday, urging its long-time president Massud Barzani to step down.
Scuffles broke out in Sulaimaniyah, a bastion of opposition to Barzani and his party, a day after two people were killed in a protest in another southern Kurdish town.
"Barzani, leave!" demonstrators chanted in Sulaimaniyah, as a wave of protests demanding the payment of long-overdue salaries for civil servants turned political.
"Our demands are not only focused on corruption and salaries but they now include Barzani's removal," said Nazar Mohammed, a civil society activist and one of the protest's organisers.
A budget crunch which has left many civil servants unpaid for months has sparked demonstrations in northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, especially in areas dominated by the opposition.
They come against the tense backdrop of a crisis that started in August, when Barzani's presidential mandate expired and no deal was reached for his succession.
Mohammed argued that the political class's inability to solve the crisis showed disregard for regular citizens.
"The main parties don't care about the people. All they worry about is the presidency, all this at the detriment of the people who are in a bad economic situation," he said.
Some protesters tried to storm the Sulaimaniyah office of the Kurdish TV station Rudaw, which is owned by the Barzani family.
Minar Mohammed, the head of the local hospital, said 25 people were lightly injured in scuffles during the Sulaimaniyah protest.
Security forces responded to stone-throwing from protesters by firing in the air, witnesses said.
There were similar protests in the towns of Kalar and Rania, as well as in Qala Diza where two protesters were shot dead on Friday by guards at the local headquarters of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The violence apparently erupted when demonstrators in Qala Diza changed course to march towards the main office of the KDP.
No such protests have yet taken place in northwestern regions traditionally more loyal to the KDP.
Barzani on Saturday morning appealed for calm across the region.
The 69-year-old Barzani has headed the KDP, one of the two historical Iraqi Kurdish parties, since 1979 and been president of the autonomous region since 2005.
His son is the Kurdistan region's intelligence chief and his nephew the prime minister.
He has been accused by critics of amassing huge wealth for his family instead of serving the population.
He served two terms and the two-year extension Kurdish parties agreed to in 2013 expired on August 19, leaving the region in an institutional vacuum.
Barzani wants to stay on, arguing that his leadership is required to steer the region as its peshmerga forces play a leading role in battling the Islamic State group.