Protests by thousands of people in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government-controlled Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah turned violent after security forces confronted them. People are demanding their salaries be paid.

Protesters attend a rally against the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, December 18, 2017.
Protesters attend a rally against the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, December 18, 2017. (Reuters)

Thousands of people took to the streets in the Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah—a semi-autonomous area controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)—in anti-government protests that were triggered by the delayed payment of salaries and “rampant corruption”.

The KRG's strongest party, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is at the centre of harsh criticism from both domestic and international figures, following its violent response to the peaceful protests demanding payment of salaries that haven’t been paid for nearly two years.

At least five people were killed and more than 70 were injured during the protests that started on Monday in the region. 

Sulaymaniyah is the centre for opposition parties, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran Movement, which have been at odds with the KDP for years. 

“People in the region haven’t been paid properly since the last two years, facing serious economic problems. Income injustice is at the peak ever than before and this started annoying people,” said Serhat Erkmen of Ahi Evran University, who is an expert on Middle East affairs.

A protester throws stones during a rally against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, December 18, 2017.
A protester throws stones during a rally against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, December 18, 2017. (Reuters)

However, he added that there were also political issues that triggered the protests.

“The parliament hasn’t been functioning since the last two years and elections were delayed by the authority. When economic and political problems are combined, solutions for the region’s problems become impossible,” he said.

Elections delayed after non-binding referendum

Presidential and parliamentary elections were due to take place on November 1, but were postponed after the outcome of a non-binding independence referendum on June 25, 2017. 

Former President Masoud Barzani, also the former head of the ruling KDP, spearheaded the referendum after two years of gridlock in domestic politics. Some of the opposition party followers boycotted the referendum.

The majority of people voted in favour, but the central government in Baghdad, and neighbouring countries Turkey and Iran, took action against the move. 

The trio closed the region's airspace and suspended all flights coming in and out. Iran went even further and shut its border with the KRG.

The central government launched a military offensive to the disputed areas, which KRG forces have controlled since 2014 after defeating Daesh. They took most of these areas and also Kirkuk back from the KRG in mid-October.

Finally, Masoud Barzani resigned at the end of the month.

These developments after the referendum also had a political impact on people who were highly disappointed, according to Erkmen, who said dreams of independence had mobilised people in the region, especially over the last four months before the vote.

“Not only the vote but also the aftermath played a vital role to surface people’s anger, as the region lost the disputed areas, including the oil-rich Kirkuk,” Erkmen added.

Economic impact after loss of Kirkuk

Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as their own city and a key source of revenue, remains inside the disputed areas of the country, according to the Iraqi constitution.

Losing the city put even more pressure on people, who were already facing financial problems.

The KRG has been struggling to pay officials and its employees since 2014, after a dispute about oil-sharing revenue that led Baghdad to stop payments as a political move to punish the KRG.

In terms of the consequences that the protests would bring to the region, Erkmen says the choices are limited:

“If the authorities chose suppressing protests with violence, which they have been doing so far, they can push the protests down in the short run. However, this would not last long,” he said. 

And he also warned of possible intervention by the central government in Baghdad.

“There is also possibility that the central government of Baghdad would intervene in the incidence to increase its control over the region, if violence continues,” Erkmen said. 

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi warned the KRG on Tuesday during a news conference, "We will not just stand by and watch if citizens are oppressed."

Iraq's KRG leader Masoud Barzani became president in 2005. 

Questioning Barzani’s power as president

Barzani was granted a two-year extension by the KRG parliament, amid security concerns as the Peshmerga battled Daesh, although his post had expired in 2013.

Barzani’s extended tenure ended in August 2015. However, he remained in office causing a political deadlock.

The second and third largest parties in parliament, Gorran and the PUK, whose votes are enough to pass a law amendment, wanted to introduce a number of bills on presidential law, which would affect the election of a new president. The KDP considered the move as an attempt to undermine Barzani.

No party presented an alternative candidate for the position, but they nonetheless refused to prolong Barzani’s mandate unless he made changes to the political system that would reduce the powers of his office. Barzani’s KDP party, which is the largest and strongest in the region and therefore had the most to lose, rejected the proposal.

The political crisis worsened when parliament closed in October 2015 and Barzani barred the speaker of parliament from Gorran from entering the capital city of Erbil during the dispute.

Parliament did not go into session again until 2017, and Barzani remained as president regardless of opposition from other parties. In a move by Barzani, parliament convened in September 2017 for a session approving the independence referendum. 

Gorran boycotted the parliament session, as did all six MPs from the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal).

Source: TRT World