Unrest spreads to Iraqi Kurdistan over socioeconomic woes

Despite the semi-autonomous status of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, its conditions are just as dire as the rest of the country’s and often the result of the same factors — corruption, waste of public money and misappropriation of resources.
Tuesday 25/08/2020
A youth waves a Kurdish flag during a demonstration in the centre of Sulaimaniyah in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, on August 22. (AFP)
A youth waves a Kurdish flag during a demonstration in the centre of Sulaimaniyah in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, on August 22. (AFP)

ERBIL – Popular unrest is moving from central and southern Iraq to the northern Kurdistan region, indicating similar social and economic frustrations in the disparate areas.

Despite the semi-autonomous status of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan region, its conditions are just as dire as the rest of the country’s and often the result of the same factors -- corruption, waste of public money and misappropriation of resources.

The Kurdistan region, like other Iraqi provinces, is suffering from a severe financial crisis compounded by a loss in oil revenue and the COVID-19 pandemic, sometimes jeopardising the salaries of government employees.

In recent days, clashes in the Sulaimaniyah province between protesters and security forces resulted in a number of injuries after youth took to the streets to protest poor services and unemployment, setting fire to the entrance of the headquarters of the local government in Kalar district in Sulaimaniyah .

Protesters also criticised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for not responding to Turkish incursions into border areas, accusing it of turning a blind eye to the deadly raids.

In an attempt to disperse the protesters in recent days, security forces fired live ammunition, wounding at least five of the young demonstrators.

Over the years, two political parties that dominate the KRG -- the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- have turned into family parties: the Barzanis and the Talabanis.

Opponents of the two families’ rule say that the Barzanis and Talabanis control the region's resources as if it were their private property, and accuse them of corruption and of exacerbating people’s poor social conditions.

In their recent slogans, protesters held political parties responsible for corruption and the region’s economic crisis. Authorities responded by condemning what they said were acts of sabotage to public facilities and properties that accompanied the protests.

KRG Prime Minister Masrour Al-Barzani described the burning and destruction of property and public money as a crime and warned that perpetrators will be brought to justice.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan government indicated that Barzani had called local officials in Sulaimaniyahto discuss the health situation and the quality of the province’s services.

The KRG would be hard pressed to quell the wave of protests if they intensify the same way protests did in central and southern Iraq after they broke out last fall, observers say.

They warn that the KRG does not have the means, either financial or material, to respond to protesters' demands.

The Kurdistan region’s crisis has been made worse by new restrictions imposed by Baghdad on the transfer of funds to the region from the state budget.

Baghdad now requires Erbil to commit to handing over the proceeds of its sale of crude oil to the region before any delivery of dues. It also requires Kurdish authorities to prove that public salaries have reached their recipients, and that part of the money is not being transferred to fictitious employees.

If Kurdish authorities resort to the same excessive but ineffective forceful tactics that the Iraqi central authority used against protesters in southern and central Iraq, the situation could seriously deteriorate in the semi-autonomous region.

Signs of repressions have already been recorded, with a crackdown on media outlets covering anti-government protests, journalists and rights defenders say, shattering the region's reputation as a liberal refuge.

Demonstrators and rights defenders also say the rallies have been met with a heavy-handed response from security forces – with reporters increasingly targeted.

"Despite laws guaranteeing press freedom in the region, when political and economic crises intensify, the limits on press reach a point of strangulation," warned the region's Metro Centre for Journalist Rights and Advocacy.

On Monday, the Independent High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq called on the Kurdistan region’s authorities and demonstrators to engage in dialogue and observe restraint.

A statement issued by the commission, which is linked to parliament, followed rounds of violence and confrontations between protesters and security forces in Sulaymaniyah.

The statement said that "the Commission follows with concern the protests in the region, and expresses its regret for the developments, especially the clashes that left many wounded among demonstrators and security forces."

The commission also called on the KRG "to prepare for a joint dialogue with demonstrators and consider their legitimate demands and calls for the elimination of unemployment, the payment of salaries and the improvement of the standard of living."

On the use of excessive violence, the commission said security forces in the region should "consider utmost restraint while demonstrators should adhere to the rules of peaceful demonstrations and preserve public and private property."

The spread of protests from southern and central Iraq to the northern region shows that anger is simmering all over the country.

The Kurdistan region also saw mass demonstrations in the winter of 2017, with protesters demanding better living conditions and the payment of salaries. Headquarters of Kurdish political parties in some cities were burned and security forces violently dispersed the protesters, killing and wounding a number of them.

The following spring, cities and towns in the region saw popular protests against the government’s salary savings system after authorities resorted to compulsory "saving" to solve its salary deficit.