Kurds walk on a busy street in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government. .
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
For the third day in a row, major protests swept the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq on Wednesday. They were concentrated in cities and towns in the east of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s autonomous region.
In Chamchamal, Koya, Sulaimaniya, Rania and other towns, protesters ransacked the offices of major political parties in the latest crisis to affect the region. On Tuesday, several protesters were reported killed and more than 100 reported wounded in protests, which will stoke anger across the region.
In the wake of the Kurdistan independence referendum and the Iraqi central government sending tanks to wrest control of Kirkuk from the KRG, the region has experienced low-level civil unrest. This is partly due to insecurity and instability stemming from divided politics and bitter anger over counterclaims that senior politicians failed the region in the drive for independence or retreating in the face of an Iranian-supporting grab for Kirkuk’s oil.
These divisions also have decades-old roots. Although the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two largest historical parties in the region, worked together during the war against Islamic State and also cooperated in Baghdad after the US-led invasion of 2003, they have bitter memories of civil conflict in the 1990s.
For Kurds of an older generation there are commemorations of family members who fought other Kurds in the civil war.
Younger people are influenced by both memories of the struggles against the Saddam Hussein regime and ISIS, and the current economic situation.
The last decade saw rising international connections, but prosperity has been stifled and younger people feel that after ISIS these issues must be addressed. Some protesters appear to be against the traditional two-party system and angry at elites they see as out of touch.
Because of the divided politics, particularly between the regional capital in Erbil that is more closely connected to the KDP, and Sulaimaniya, which is associated with the PUK, two different narratives have emerged online. Kurdistan 24, which is based in Erbil, points the finger at Shaswar Abdulwahid, the owner of the NRT TV station and online media. “The instigation of public disorder on-air resulted in the burning of government offices, major property damage and the closure of roads by protesters,” says a report. NRT reports that Shaswar told people, “We must do it through peaceful protests and we should not allow them to drag us into confrontation.”
Now locals say that Abdulwahid and a politician associated with him have been detained.
In addition, NRT claims that PUK security forces attacked one of its reporters in Halabja and police raided NRT’s office, shutting down the channel and taking its website down. The website was still down at the time of writing.
The protests could not come at a worse time for the Kurdistan region. Divided politically, it has sought to bring stability and support from abroad through a diplomatic offensive that has seen Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy Qubad Talabani hold a series of high level meetings in Erbil and abroad. On Monday, as protests erupted, Barzani was in Germany meeting German officials to discuss talks between the KRG and Baghdad.
At the same time the region’s economic crisis, already made difficult by the fight against ISIS, has worsened as oil revenue dropped by half after Baghdad took back Kirkuk. In addition, Baghdad has sought to isolate the KRG by closing its two international airports to foreign flights. According to the local network Rudaw, the airports have seen their monthly air cargo volume decrease from 2,500 metric tons to 10 tons. With 1,500 flights canceled since September, 100,000 fewer passengers arrived at the airports. Local civil servants are being paid three months in arrears. Reports that six protesters were killed and 100 injured in Rania and other areas will stoke the calls for more civil unrest.
Baghdad and Iran, which opposed the Kurdistan referendum, have sought to exploit the internal tensions in the region.
Kurds in Iraq never had an “Arab spring” moment in 2011, because their society was more democratic and had already gone through the crucible of change decades before. However, 2017 looks like it could be pushing in that direction.
In Erbil many Kurds say that the protests have not affected the western region that is traditionally associated with the KDP.
“Protesters want some change and an end to corruption, but they lack clarity,” said one man.
Other Kurds with direct knowledge of the situation pointed fingers at Baghdad and Iran for the problems, claiming that Baghdad was seeking to “starve” the denying the region its share of the federal budget.
Another man said that the protests are also designed to scupper plans for an election or distract from what happened in Kirkuk. He sees it as an internal struggle for power in the areas the PUK controls. This is particularly true because the PUK has seen its power base eaten into by new political parties such as the Gorran (Change) movement and an independent party run by former KRG prime minister Barham Salih.
However, Iraqi Kurdish journalist Abdulla Hawez disagrees.
He wrote on Twitter on Tuesday that there have been no major protests in Erbil against “widespread corruption in the capital, this is how you know KDP has completely killed any sort of civic movement in the city and nobody dares protest.”
Lahur Talabany, director of KRG’s Intelligence Agency, tweeted that protesters’ demands are legitimate, but they should exercise restraint.