Iraqi security forces block Kurdish teachers' march to Baghdad over unpaid salaries
Iraqi security forces on Sunday prevented hundreds of teachers from the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region from reaching the capital Baghdad as education workers demand the federal government pay their delayed salaries.
Public sector teachers in Sulaimaniyah and Halabja provinces have boycotted classes since mid-September because the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which governs the northern Iraqi enclave, had not paid months of salaries.
With no word from the KRG, the teachers decided to take their demands to Baghdad, home of the Iraqi federal government, heading for Tahrir Square until their route was blocked by security.
"The Iraqi security forces at the first checkpoint near Kirkuk did not allow 31 buses, all full of Kurdish teachers, to go towards Baghdad," Othman Gulpi, a Kurdish teacher and one of the lead activists in the protest, told The New Arab.
"Iraqi officials told us that they have been ordered by superiors to not allow us to pass the checkpoint, although we had previously obtained formal permissions to hold the demonstration in Baghdad."
Kurdistan teachers & employees rally in Baghdad's Tahrir Square today, demanding financial rights. Baghdad & Erbil have been complicit in this situation. Apparently, Checkpoints in Kirkuk and Baghdad outskirts are blocking them to reach Tahrir Square. pic.twitter.com/RiT670OjOt— MP Sarkawt Shams::النائب سەرکەوت شمس الدين (@MPSarkawtShams) November 26, 2023
Teachers blocked the Sulamaniyah-Erbil main road but ended the protest after Iraqi security forces threatened to disperse them.
Although the main protest was prevented from reaching the capital, nearly 200 Kurdish teachers who arrived in Baghdad some days earlier did manage to hold a demonstration at Tahrir Square on Sunday.
Teachers have gone on strike and said Sunday they will not return to classes unless the KRG meets their demands which includes pay rises and paying their September and October salaries.
KRG authorities have threatened teachers with administrative detention unless they attend classes on Monday.
The teachers claimed the Iraqi security forces hindering their movement to the capital was part of a political deal between Baghdad “were as per a joint political deal between the Iraqi government and the KRG".
The KRG had frozen pay increases for all public sector employees and security forces since 2016 when oil prices plummeted, although it later bumped up salaries for Peshmerga forces and judges.
While teachers under the Iraqi federal government have been paid their November salaries, Kurdish teachers and other KRG employees are yet to receive their September salaries.
This has resulted in 700,000 Kurdish pupils attending public schools in Sulaimaniyah and Halabja from being deprived of an education, The children of wealthier children continue to receive an education via private schools, while Erbil and Duhok provinces remain unaffected by the strike.
The KRG has faced growing criticism for its failure to address the financial concerns of teachers and public sector employees, and this school year might be postponed if teachers refuse to return to their classrooms.
Iraq’s Prime Minister, Mohammed Shia al-Sudani last week announced that his cabinet will pay KRG teachers salaries, as well as public sector employees, on condition that the Iraqi Kurdish government send over its payroll and that payments are deducted from Erbil's share of the Iraqi federal budget.
In June, Iraq's parliament approved a three-year budget bill of nearly 198.9 trillion dinars ($153 billion), the largest in the country's history.
According to Iraqi law, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region must first deliver 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) to the federal authorities, along with half of the non-oil revenues, before receiving a 12.6 percent share of the federal budget.
The KRG said it needs 940 billion Iraqi dinars ($602 million) to pay monthly salaries to over 1.2 million civil servants, but cannot do so if Baghdad does not regularly send its share from the budget.
Erbil has said it is waiting for funds, preventing the payment of KRG employees, while Baghdad argues that Kurdish authorities have not stuck to their side of the bargain.
Kurdish teachers held a similar protest last year over pay freezes.