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PoliticsMiddle East

Iraq's deadly new protests are different

December 11, 2020

The politics are the same; protesters' demands are, too. But this time — due to demographics, falling oil prices and the coronavirus pandemic — it's different, locals in Iraqi Kurdistan say.

Irak | Proteste und Ausschreitungen in Sulaymaniyah
Protesters set fire to political party offices and government buildings in the northern Iraqi city of SulaymaniyahImage: Fariq Faraj Mahmood/AA/picture alliance

It is usually considered one of the safest areas in Iraq. But, over the past week, a spate of deadly violence has swept through Sulaymaniyah. Buildings have been burned, a curfew and travel ban enforced and the internet cut off.  

Since early December, locals in this part of the autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan have been holding anti-government protests. These began because local authorities have not paid public sector employees' full salaries since April. The protests are ongoing, despite a ban on demonstrations. 

Over the past week, they have become more violent. Demonstrators, who accuse local politicians of corruption, embezzlement and nepotism, set fire to the headquarters of various political parties — they didn't seem to care which.

Live ammunition fired

Security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against them and made numerous arrests. By Friday morning, 10 people were dead, including a 16-year-old boy, and around 65 people were injured. A curfew and travel ban between cities in the Sulaymaniyah district were put in place and the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masrour Barzani, gave a speech in which he accused "external forces" of infiltrating protests. Journalists were harassed, the internet throttled and social media sites blocked.

Iraq's president, Barham Salih, who works in Baghdad but is originally from Sulaymaniyah, expressed his concern about the developments as did the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq and representatives of the French and British governments.

Iraqi President Barham Salih
Iraqi President Barham Salih issued a statement about the protests in his hometownImage: Murtadha Al-Sudani/AA/picture alliance

Reasons for the non-payment of salaries are complex and part of long-running political problems. Iraq earns almost all of its national revenue from oil sales. The Iraqi Kurdish authorities, headquartered in the regional capital of Irbil, are supposed to put funds from oil sales in their region back into the national coffers. In return, the federal government in Baghdad should then give the Kurds their share of the national budget, from which they can pay salaries.

However, this deal has hardly ever worked out, with both sides regularly accusing the other of wrongdoing. Baghdad says Irbil has been profiting from oil deals on the side. Irbil says Baghdad is withholding funds for political reasons and blames the federal government for current payment problems.

Compromise and accusations

To make matters even more complicated, when it comes to political power, the Iraqi Kurdish region is split. It is run by two major political parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, in Irbil and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, from Sulaymaniyah. The two parties, who have their own military forces and once fought each other in a civil war, differ on many points. That includes how best to deal with Baghdad.

Compromises and accusations have been a mainstay of the relationship between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan for years. These are not the first such protests in Iraqi Kurdistan either.

A perfect storm 

Still, locals and long-time observers all agree this round of protests is different.

There's a new generation entering the workforce, often young men who cannot find jobs, and they are the ones involved in these protests, Zanko Ahmad, a local journalist, told DW.

"Most of those on the street are younger," he says. "Many are not even state employees. At the last election, the young people were expressing their anger through the ballot box. But now there are no effective opposition parties. So they're expressing their anger by burning the headquarters of political parties and even the homes of officials."

There is definitely a connection with anti-government protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq, Ahmad confirms. "They are a catalyst. The reasons are almost the same."

Protesters burn tire in Basra, southern Iraq, in the summer of 2020.
The same reasons: Protests in Basra, southern Iraq, in the summer of 2020Image: picture-alliance/AP/N. al-Jurani

A survey conducted by his organization supports that, confirms Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at London-based policy institute, Chatham House. "Even in Sulaymaniyah there was huge sympathy for protesters in southern Iraq," he notes.

What's different now are the circumstances. "The demographics and the economics make this into an almost perfect storm," Mansour says.

No faith in the democratic system

In Iraq, a country with comparatively little private enterprise, the government is the major employer. Salaries and social welfare payments are estimated to equal about 80% of total government spending.

The fall in oil prices since 2014 and demographic changes that will add over a million new Iraqi Kurdish jobseekers over the next few years mean that regional government budgets are too small to keep up, Mansour explains. The pandemic has not helped the local economy either. That means citizens' loyalties can no longer be bought with a government job. "[Authorities] can't use the old ideologies either — Kurdish nationalism or party loyalties —so they may rely on some form of coercion. That's what we're starting to see," Mansour says. 

Protesters in Sulaymaniyah set political party offices alight.
Protesters in Sulaymaniyah set political party offices alight Image: Fariq Faraj Mahmood/AA/picture alliance

"Basically the protesters are losing faith in the system," agrees Zmkan Ali Saleem, a senior researcher at the Institute of Regional and International Studies, a research center in Sulaymaniyah. "They see their parents struggling to put bread on the table, they understand the gap between themselves and the elites and they are very, very angry."

A Kurdish Spring?

So could this be the beginning of a larger movement akin to ongoing protests in Baghdad, a "Kurdish Spring" as some have described it?

Locals point out that, up until now, the conflict has been restricted to the PUK-controlled Sulaymaniyah district. There have been calls to expand protests to the KDP-controlled districts of Irbil and Dohuk and if this happens, that could have more serious impact, they say.

"But right now, this movement is spontaneous and leaderless," Saleem argues. "It could expand, or it could die out." In fact, he points out, some of the salaries owed have already been paid to medical and security staff, with teachers next.

However, Saleem concludes, "I do think it's gone beyond the salaries now. People here are set on protesting."

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.