The Kurdistan region is facing a new wave of protests. This has happened off and on for months now. What is new is the intensity, size and destructiveness of the current round. This harkens back to 2011, when there were large scale demonstrations in Sulaymaniya. Both times people were calling for reforms of the political and economic systems. In 2011, the authorities eventually cracked down on the crowds and shut them down begging the question of whether that will happen again this year.
The current round of protests began in mid-December 2017. On December 16 there was an initial demonstration on the Sulaymaniya-Kirkuk road in Chamchamal over a lack of services. That set the stage for the larger and sustained marches that began on December 18 in Sulaymaniya, Kalar, Rania, Taq Taq, Chamchamal, Koya, Rawanduz, Halabja, Said Sadiq, and Qaladze. In response, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) shut down the NRT TV station claiming it was inciting the street actions. The political parties were targeted from the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) offices in Kifri and Piramagroon, to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters in Irbil, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union in Rania. Two people were killed in clashes and 300 wounded by December 21. Almost all of these events occurred in Sulaymaniya province, which has a history of political dissent and demonstrations. Irbil saw a few incidents as well.
The reasons for the wave of discontent have been building up for years. The immediate causes are the fiscal crisis the KRG has suffered. That started when Baghdad cut off payments to the region over its independent oil deals. That was then made worse when global oil prices plummeted. Kurdistan was forced into selling its oil to traders that advanced the regional government payments and created a growing debt. In 2014, things were alleviated a bit when the Kurds occupied the Kirkuk oil fields, which nearly doubled Irbil’s production and revenues. The KRG lost control of those resources however in October 2017 when the federal government re-occupied the area. The main results of these problems were austerity measures with government employees facing pay cuts on top of not being paid at all for months. The larger issue is the rule of the Barzani and Talabani families that have dominated the region for decades. Their corruption and nepotism has soured many to their rule. When the economy was booming people forgave their transgressions, but now that things are in a tailspin people are angry once again leading to people taking to the streets.
The ruling parties have reacted in different ways to these actions. The PUK said it supported the right to assemble but not bad behavior. The Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) condemned the killing of demonstrators. It and Change withdrew their ministers from the KRG cabinet, and the Change speaker of parliament resigned in protest. Change also called for a general strike to pressure the KRG to carry out changes. The KDP however has tried to blame others and divert attention. The Regional Government for instance, claimed other states were behind the protests and the Kurdistan Security Council said that people should be mad at Baghdad for causing the region’s difficulties. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the press the authorities would prevent the protests from getting worse. There was also a claim that Turkey had sent its armed forces into Dohuk, but that was denied. These varying responses reflect the position of each party. The KIG and Change are part of the opposition, and have effectively been shut out of power since former President Massoud Barzani kicked them out of the government. The KDP on the other hand is the dominant party in the region, and is trying to play bait and switch saying foreigners are responsible for all the problems.
This situation harkens back to the last time major demonstrations broke out in February 2011. Then like now, people took to the streets in Sulaymaniya demanding political reforms, and were fired upon by guards at the KDP headquarters. The protests quickly spread, and a gathering place was set up in Sulaymaniya city. That lasted until April when the security forces broke it up (1) and a state of emergency was declared. (2) That poses the question of how the KRG will respond to the current actions if they continue past a few days. The regional government has not approved of any sustained dissent. The talk of foreign provocation and stopping the protests from expanding point to a crackdown in the offing if things continue.
1. Al Sumaria, “Kurdish Security Forces burn protesters stage in Sulaymaniya,” 4/19/11
2. Mohammed, Fryad, “No troops expedited to Sulaimaniya “so far”, say officials,” AK News, 4/20/11
Abdulla, Namo, “Military presence halts protests in Iraq’s Kurdistan,” Reuters, 4/29/11
Associated Press, “Kurdish security fires on protesters in north Iraq,” 2/17/11
Bas News, “Protestors Attack KDP’s Headquarter in Piramagroon, Sulaymaniyah,” 12/18/17
- “Protestors Storm KDP’s Headquarters in Kifri, South of Sulaymaniyah,” 12/19/17
Ebraheem, Mohammed, “11 Kurdish guards killed, injured as protesters storm PUK premises in Erbil,” Iraqi News, 12/19/17
eKurd, “Protests erupt in Iraqi Kurdistan over unpaid wages and lack of services,” 12/18/17
Hennessy-Fiske, Molly, “IRAQ: At least two protesters dead,” Babylon & Beyond, Los Angeles Times, 2/17/11
Al Maalomah, “KDP holds Abadi responsible for deteriorating situation in the region,” 12/20/17
Mohammed, Fryad, “No troops expedited to Sulaimaniya “so far”, say officials,” AK News, 4/20/11
Rudaw, “Anti-government protests continue for third day in some Kurdish cities,” 12/20/17
- “Gorran and Komal withdraw from KRG,” 12/20/17
- “People protest for basic services in Chamchamal,” 12/16/17
- “UPDATED: PM Barzani vows to put an end to ‘chaos’ caused by protests,” 12/21/17
- “Updated: Protesters set party, government offices on fire for second day,” 12/19/17
Saifaddin, Dilshad, “Protesters’ council demand resignation of Kurdistan authority,” AK News, 4/4/11
Shafaaq News, “What is the truth of the entry of Turkish forces into the Kurdistan Region,” 12/21/17
Al Sumaria, “Kurdish Security Forces burn protesters stage in Sulaimaniya,” 4/19/11
- “Sulaymaniya protests turn into violence,” 2/18/11