Will Iraq’s Kurdish protesters turn to violence?
Sulaymaniyah - Although Iraqi Kurdistan’s power needs are met by natural gas reserves near Chamchamal, the people living in the area do not see many of the benefits of their natural resources. Which is why a group of locals decided to protest the situation.
The evening of the protest — January 2nd — unidentified individuals launched rocket-propelled grenades at the gas-fuelled power plant that provides Iraqi Kurdistan with about half of its energy needs. The plant was not damaged.
After the attack, energy supplies for the people of Chamchamal increased. Households there had been getting about two hours of power after midnight. Now there was an uninterrupted supply from 10pm to 8am. Many locals said there was a connection between their new electricity schedule and the rocket attacks.
People made jokes about the incident on social media. “Fire a rocket and get 24 hours of free power,” read one comment. “This offer is valid until the government wakes up again.”
Some people suggested that a local hero of sorts, Abdullah Kwekha Mubarak, was behind the rocket attack. Mubarak lived in Norway for almost a decade and returned to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008. He more or less founded the Chamchamal branch of the Movement for Change, an opposition party that campaigned on an anti-corruption platform. He has taken what may be described as staunch positions.
Early in 2016, Mubarak threatened to cut a gas pipeline in Chamchamal if the area did not get a better power supply. On January 29th, the gas pipeline between the Khor Mor gas field and Erbil was bombed, leading to a disruption in work at other power plants that rely on natural gas. The region’s Asayesh — forces responsible for internal regional security — said the pipeline had been bombed with TNT explosive and that 2 metres were damaged. Mubarak denied responsibility for the attack.
Nonetheless locals connect his name to any attacks on gas pipelines, describing the new electricity supply as “Abdullah power”.
“We invite Mubarak to launch a rocket from Chamchamal city towards the Erbil power plant,” wrote another wag on Facebook. “Maybe we will finally get 24 hours’ worth of electricity.”
Joking aside, it is possible that this may be the first manifestation of real violence in the Iraqi Kurdish region, coming after months of protest, financial crisis and locals saying that those in power pay no heed to their complaints.
Mubarak said that, while he was all for demonstrations to show the government how angry locals were, he did not condone the destruction of pipelines.
“People are aware of their rights and they will not accept injustice,” he said, “but it is against our principles to resort to this kind of action.”
Latif Fatih Faraj, a local journalist, said that Chamchamal residents, who have a reputation as tough fighters, are reacting to what they see as the injustice of the situation.
“When the power plant was built, they were promised that they would benefit from it but those promises have not been fulfilled,” Faraj said. “The electricity produced in Chamchamal is simply being sold onto other districts and this angers people.”
“The problem is that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities say they want to decentralise power,” added Chamchamal Mayor Amanj Jabari, “but those who are actually in charge have a more centralised mentality. That is why they will not respond to the demands of the people.”
The controversy over the rockets fired at the power station caused a lot of debate in Iraqi Kurdistan. Are the demands of the people of Chamchamal legitimate? Could they cut off the gas pipeline if they are pushed too far? Could they cut off the road and not allow oil tankers to pass?
There have been other incidents in Chamchamal. Security cameras for traffic safety were shot out twice. Apparently, this happened because locals were angry that the security cameras cost a lot of money.
“Patience has limits,” said Riwas Faik, an Iraqi Kurdish politician and member of the local parliament’s Industry, Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “You don’t know what to expect from angry people.
“They may resort to violence; they may not allow tankers to pass. They may stop the gas supply and they might even attack government buildings. If the government does not try and find solutions to the problems that are upsetting people, things could get worse. People may turn to violence and direct confrontation may happen,” she said.