Iraqi authorities are trying to contain public anger in the northeastern region of Kurdistan as the death toll after a week of violent protests over unpaid wages and corruption has risen to eight.
Civil unrest in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRI) is fueled by the fall in oil prices linked to the coronavirus, which has hampered the war-torn country’s ability to pay a huge government wage bill.
Falling oil prices have more than halved the oil revenues that support 90% of Iraq’s budget. This forced Baghdad’s central government, headed by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to promise sweeping reform. The government borrowed heavily for finance your public sector, whose size has tripled since the 2003 US-led invasion, costing the equivalent of 25 percent of gross domestic product.
The UN political mission in Iraq has declared that it “condemns[ed] acts of violence ”, without naming the perpetrators. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, a state-funded observer, confirmed that eight protesters had died in five different cities since the protests erupted on December 3.
Adil Hassan, a 43-year-old teacher, said he received just four months’ salary this year and attended protests alongside fellow educators. The security forces “are violent, use rubber bullets and fire tear gas,” he said, adding that he had been arrested and had to sign a declaration stating that he would stop protesting.
“These protests are the result of the deterioration of the living situation,” Hassan said, promising to continue. “It’s not just riots.”
After furious protesters in Sulaymaniyah province torched political party offices, local authorities imposed curfews and blocked roads, while internet access was temporarily restricted. Security forces attacked a broadcaster affiliated with an opposition political party, removing the channel.
KRI employees have often gone without their wages since the fall in oil prices in 2014, as the economy was hit hard by coronavirus lockdowns.
The protesters “express their frustration with the authorities who have not been able to find a permanent solution to the crisis,” said Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraqi Advisory Council. He added that around 1.3 million people in KRI depend on government salaries.
Mr Alaaldin warned that protests could spill over into western KRI towns, which “would destabilize the whole region and have big implications for any hope of recovery.”
The Iraqi-majority northern Kurdish provinces have their own regional government. The oil-rich territories are dominated by political parties affiliated with two powerful tribes. The ruling Barzani family from the western provinces holds the post of regional prime minister through their Kurdistan Democratic Party, while the Talabani clan’s Kurdistan Patriotic Union party controls the east, where the protests are raging.
While the KRI can make its own oil deals, it theoretically shares its revenues with Baghdad as part of a budget deal. But KRI authorities complain that due to a long-standing conflict, Baghdad has failed to transfer money for salaries.
Areas of southern Iraq have been rocked by mass protests since October 2019. More than 500 people have been killed in a brutal crackdown, but public anger has toppled the old administration. Iraq is also struggling to rebuild itself after its devastating fight against Sunni jihadists Isis.