While protests have occasionally hit the Kurdish region since 2015, the latest demonstrations have been more intense.
In recent months, many civil servants and their families in Iraq’s Kurdish region have been stuck in a growing political disagreement between Erbil and Baghdad over how the regional government should operate its energy sources, primarily, oil exports.
Since April, the Iraqi central government has not paid the salaries of the regional government’s civil servants. This includes Peshmergas, the armed forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), all with the aim to punish the Erbil government’s direct oil exports to other countries without the consent of Baghdad.
Most of the protests have been concentrated in the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Halapja, which are located in northeastern Iraq near the Iranian border. In both cities, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the main parties in the Kurdish region, which has long been at loggerheads with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the region’s leading political movement led by Masoud Barzani, has a powerful presence.
“Protests have usually been peaceful, but sometimes they also turned violent when they burned offices of political parties [like the KDP and the PUK],” says Bekir Aydogan, the Anadolu Agency’s correspondent in Erbil.
Aydogan observes that regional authorities allow protests to happen most of the time, but sometimes, mass arrests ensue, including those of former parliamentarians, who have also participated in demonstrations.
“In recent protests in Sulaymaniyah, which have continued for ten days, almost all political party offices have been attacked. Also protesters attacked government buildings,” Aydogan tells TRT World.
“To my observation, the KDP protects their offices against protesters, but the PUK does not appear to respond much,” says Aydogan. Also some top officials of the KRG like Masrour Barzani, the regional prime minister, accused the PKK, a terror group, of inciting violent protests against Erbil, according to Aydogan.
As the regional government representatives negotiate a political deal with the central government in Baghdad to address the salary dispute, protests have slightly calmed in the last three days, according to Aydogan.
But he also thinks that even if a deal is realised between Erbil and Baghdad, it might not last, thanks to the bitter differences over the future of the region and its connections to the outside world.
While Covid-19 rages across the world and also in northern Iraq, there are several reasons Iraqi Kurds are protesting. Unpaid salaries and corruption, due in part to the decades-long dual governance of the region by the KDP and the PUK, increase the frustration, says Aydogan who studies regional issues as well as Kurdish political parties.
Since the 1990s, despite the KRG being established under US tutelage, Iraq’s Kurdish region has continued to be divided between the late Jalal Talabani’s PUK, which dominates Sulaymaniyah region, and Masoud Barzani’s KDP, which rules across Erbil and Dohuk, the two other cities of the region.
There are also other serious threats like Daesh, which attacked the region a few years ago, and the PKK, whose headquarters are located in the Qandil mountains thanks to the PUK allowance and, at times, indifference.
PKK, which is considered as a terror group by Turkey, the US, the EU and NATO, has recently launched fatal attacks against KRG peshmergas across border areas.
In addition, nearly a million refugees came to the Kurdish region due to the war in Iraq, and live in the KRG territory, further straining resources.
But after all, the KRG’s mismanagement of financial sources have appeared to persuade ordinary Kurds that if they don’t show their anger, no one will notice. Among all, the region’s youth seems the most enraged, Aydogan says.
In the Kurdish region, since 2018, poverty has skyrocketed, doubling previous levels, says the UN. The global pandemic has made things even worse.
“In comparison to previous protests these are significant as the current fiscal crisis affects larger swaths of the population,” said Lahib Higel, the International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst.
“Although the current protests are a direct consequence of lack of salaries, it builds on years of financial mismanagement,” Higel adds.
Prior to angry protests in the Kurdish region, there have been fierce demonstrations against the corrupt financial policies of the central government across Iraq, forcing the previous Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi to resign.
Some might also think that they could do the same thing in the Kurdish region, says Aydogan. But he does not see that kind of scenario as necessarily viable. “Both the KDP and the PUK have their own peshmerga forces. As a result, to change the political status in the Kurdish region is much more difficult,” he adds.
Iraq’s Shia-dominant central government and its Kurdish region have had several issues for years. Erbil’s export of the region’s oil independently from Baghdad appears to be the biggest point of contention, which signals the KRG’s intention to seek a political separation from Iraq.
In 2017, the Barzani-led KRG went for an independence referendum. It proved a failed bid, losing its grasp in the oil-rich Kirkuk and deepening disagreements with Baghdad.
During the tenure of Nouri al Maliki, a controversial former Iraqi prime minister, the budget of the Kurdish region was also cut. “At the time, Baghdad said that Erbil was exporting oil without the consent of the central government,” Aydogan says.
But the Kurdish region has continued to sign deals with other countries, Aydogan says, leading to a political deadlock between Baghdad and Erbil.
Right now, through a debt law, both governments are trying to reach a political settlement where Baghdad allows Erbil to receive its monthly budget in exchange for transferring its oil revenues and customs fees from the Kurdish region’s border gates to the central government, he says.
“The Kurdish region has nearly had a three decades-long political experience. But it could not even pay monthly salaries,” Aydogan observes.
“The issue of unpaid salaries is a political card for Baghdad to tighten up Erbil’s connection to the central government. Baghdad uses it from time to time. As a result, this crisis will continue,” he says.