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Bloody protests worsen the crisis in Kurdistan

Demonstrators are against pay cuts and demand a fight against corruption.

For three days demonstrators threw stones at security services and set fire to the headquarters of key political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. The protests happened mainly in the Governorates of Sulaymaniyah and Halabja in Kurdistan, northern Iraq. The security services defended themselves by using tear gas, water cannons and live bullets. The heaviest clashes took place in the city of Ranya in Sulaymaniyah Governorate, near the border with Iran. Two to six people were killed. During riots that lasted three days, 300 people were wounded, including members of the security services. In Halabia the flag was lowered at the half-mast to honour the people who were killed.

Different occupational groups protested, including administrative employees who have not received salaries for months and those whose salaries will be reduced in the second round of pay cuts. In Sulaymaniyah, the traffic police did not come to work in protest. Teachers were also among the ones who protested.

The Kurdistan authorities used the commotion to close the NRT media group, which was against the referendum on independence and which is linked with the newly formed party, the New Generation list. The party criticizes the actions of the current government. On December 20, about one hundred armed officers entered the TV headquarters to close the TV station immediately. This decision was taken by the ministry of culture of Kurdistan, which accused the NRT of inciting violence. The television website is still not working.

The United Nations Assistant Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) expressed its concern and called for respect and protection of the media. The American embassy in Baghdad spoke in the same way.

– Our times are full of challenges for our region. Your frustration is understandable, and I hear it – said Nechirvan Barzani, the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, while appealing to the protesters during the discussion broadcasted on the TV Rudaw.

Barzani called for peace and condemned the acts of violence. He also reminded that the Iraqi army was gathering near the city of Makhmur, 60 km southwest of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. The Security Council of the Regional Government of Kurdistan accused Iraq of destabilising the situation in Kurdistan.

‘The street protests of the Kurdistan residents are the result of the defeat, monopoly, corruption and injustice of the ruling parties during the last two decades’ – said the statement of the Movement for Change (The Gorran Movement). This party supported the protesters from the very beginning (although they also destroyed its headquartes). Gorran sent its condolences to the families of the victims and called the security services to defend the citizens, and not ‘point the weapon at their brothers and sisters’.

On December 20, Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group left the government coalition. The reason was the inability to fight corruption. The Kurdistan Islamic Union also considers leaving the government. Barzani said during the press conference that he respected this decision, but he did not understand it, because the elections are to take place in a few months. Moreover, the Gorran party is calling for a strike.

Prime Minister Barzani asked for unity, because – as he claimed – it makes Kurds stronger and gives a chance for a better future.

However, the sense of the lack of prospects for a better future provoked people to protests on the streets. Despite overcoming the ISIS threat and holding a referendum on independence, the authorities did not try to fight corruption and improve the financial situation of the residents.

In Kurdistan, the time for tightening belts has lasted since 2014. Back then the Kurds took control over Kirkuk and its oil fields, but the authorities in Erbil could not reach an agreement with Baghdad on the distribution of oil profits. On the one hand, Iraq decided to deprive Kurdistan of a fixed subsidy of 17 percent of budget. On the other hand, oil prices have fallen rapidly. As a result, Kurdistan Regional Government have lost a large part of its income. Problems with paying salaries for employees have begun. In 2016, the Kurdistan Regional Government ordered pay cuts of most public-sector employees, which then reached 40 percent of the previous salaries.

People of Kurdistan believed that the referendum of independence would change their fate and result in the development of their region. However, things went south. On October 16, Baghdad started to occupy disputed territories. After the loss of Kirkuk, the number of barrels exported daily fell from 500,000 to 250,000. Therefore, the monthly budget has shrunk from USD 565.5 million to USD 337.4 million. This is less than half of the funds necessary to pay salaries to all public-sector employees, because over 1.2 million people receive at least one salary from the Kurdistan Regional Government budget.

The government announced further pay cuts that were to include employees who were omitted in 2016, primarily uniformed services. The government also promised to tighten up the system that allows to collect several salaries or to receive them by people who do not work at all.