Protests rock Iraqi Kurdistan despite police clampdown
SULAIMANIYAH – Protests raged for a third day in Iraqi Kurdistan on Wednesday despite a clampdown by security forces after five people were killed as ire exploded at the calamitous fallout from an independence vote.
Demonstrators in the town of Rania, where five protesters were shot dead and dozens wounded Tuesday, torched the offices of several political parties as people vented their anger at the authorities over a worsening economic crisis and corruption.
People also took to the streets in the towns of Qalat Diza, Chamchamal and Halabja, where police shot in the air and fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
A disputed Kurdish referendum in September delivered a resounding “yes” for independence, but drew sweeping reprisals from Baghdad which dealt a heavy blow to the region’s already flagging economy.
Protesters have unleashed their fury at all five of the autonomous Kurdish region’s main political parties, not just the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of former regional president Massud Barzani who initiated the fateful poll.
Since Monday, around 200 people have been injured and at least 15 party offices and a town hall set ablaze in a string of locations.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq said Wednesday it was “deeply concerned about the violence” and “called for restraint and calm on all sides”.
Faced by the unprecedented popular fury, the Goran party and Kurdistan Islamic Group announced they were withdrawing their ministers from the regional government.
“We are burning the offices of the political parties that are part of the government and are responsible for our economic suffering,” an activist told AFP, asking not to be identified for security reasons.
“Citizens want to show that they are in despair over the actions of all the parties that have led Kurdistan to bankruptcy.”
In a bid to quell the unrest, heavily armed troops and anti-riot police locked down Iraqi Kurdistan’s second city Sulaimaniyah.
Armoured personnel carriers, water cannon and trucks mounted with machineguns were stationed at all of the city’s main crossroads, an AFP correspondent reported.
There was virtually no traffic and most shops were closed, particularly around the central Saray Square, the focal point of the protests against the fallout from the independence referendum.
Those moves came after security forces on Tuesday stormed the offices of NRT, a Kurdish television channel that was reporting on the protests, and ordered it to suspend its broadcasts.
The independence vote has already caused a political shake-up in Kurdistan, with veteran leader Barzani stepping down in October.
That decision came after Baghdad seized back swathes of disputed oil-rich territory, gutting the region’s coffers.
Prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, the ex-president’s nephew, issued an appeal for calm from Germany where he was on a visit on Tuesday.
“The region is going through a difficult period. Your frustrations are understandable and I hear them,” he said.
“But violence is unacceptable. I ask you to hold peaceful demonstrations.”
Anger, however, is running deep in the region as economic problems – triggered by the slump in oil prices since 2014 – have worsened dramatically.
Residents in the capital Arbil have told AFP that salaries have been shorn in half in the past few months and are paid only erratically.
As temperatures drop, the spiralling price of heating fuel looks set to bite, while mains power has been cut to only four hours each day.
Cyril Roussel, a French specialist on the Kurds, said that there is a “feeling of betrayal, defeat and humiliation among the people” in Iraqi Kurdistan.
“People feel betrayed and region’s coffers are empty,” he said.
The central government in Baghdad has given short shrift to the economic problems roiling Kurdistan, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi refusing to cover the salaries of Kurdish civil servants.
“Baghdad is waiting for the region to go bankrupt to then negotiate from a position of force,” Roussel said.