Protests in Iraqi Kurdistan sparked by long-held grievances

Protests in Iraqi Kurdistan sparked by long-held grievances
Comment: As many young Kurds mourn the loss of the independence dream, the economic situation continues to worsen, fuelling political instability, writes Tanya Goudsouzian.
5 min read
21 Dec, 2017
Protests in the city of Raniya continued for their third day on December 20 [AFP]

Not since the mass protests which swept across the streets of Sulaimania in February 2011 has there been such a public show of outrage in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.

The grievances are much the same - unpaid wages and a lack of basic services as a result of rampant corruption within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

If six years ago these protests helped strengthen the position of newcomer Goran ["Change"] party in both the Iraqi and Kurdish regional parliaments, it is unlikely that words and hopeful rhetoric from any new movement or party will be enough to quell the resentment and outright hostility this time round.

No 'Kurdish street'

Still, it is important to note there is no such thing as "the Kurdish street" and sentiments remain divided along partisan lines. While there has been a general malaise over economic stagnation and endemic corruption across the Kurdish region, the protesters are mostly in Sulaimania and other areas which have traditionally been strongholds of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

They feel they have suffered more than their fair share, and blame the KRG for favouring residents of areas under Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) control for jobs and development projects. The Kurdish regional government is largely controlled by the KDP led by former KRG President Massoud Barzani.

The regional government, for its part, blames Baghdad for withholding its share of the federal budget, and officials have suggested that the Sulaimania protests are being manipulated by "foreign agents" in order to have a pretext for Baghdad and Tehran to deploy troops.

Officials in Baghdad claim the KRG is misusing the funds to line the pockets of corrupt officials.

Over in the KDP-aligned parts of the Kurdish region, whether Erbil or Dohuk provinces, there has been criticism that Sulaimania residents should not be provoking unrest at this precarious juncture for the Kurds, so soon after the referendum which backfired so catastrophically.

But the downward spiral may have begun in earnest back in 2011, when, emboldened by the Arab Spring, Kurds took to the streets to voice their indignation and their demands.

The spectre of this dangerous enemy at the gates galvanised Iraqi Kurds and somewhat deflected public attention from economic hardships

Enemy at the gates

The emergence in 2014 of the Islamic State group's self-proclaimed "caliphate" in Mosul was ironically a godsend to the flailing Kurdish administration, which was mired in internal disputes and standoffs with the central government over illegal oil sales.

The spectre of this dangerous enemy at the gates galvanised Iraqi Kurds and somewhat deflected public attention from economic hardships. But as young Iraqi Kurdish men and women lost their lives in Kirkuk, Sinjar and Mosul fighting IS, foreign investors steadily pulled out of the once-booming Kurdish enclave.

By 2016, the economy had come to a grinding halt, with restaurants and hotels closing shop, and construction projects halted. Public sector workers, who make up at least 65 percent of the region's work force, began to receive their salaries intermittently; every two months, every three months, and eventually, salaries were cut by more than 50 percent. This included school teachers and university professors.

As one mother from Kirkuk lamented last November: "An entire generation is being deprived of an education. What will become of us? A nation of shoe-shiners and vegetable sellers? Our politicians seem to be telling us, forget your education, get a menial job to make ends meet."

Noose around Kurdish necks

Today, hundreds of young Kurds have hit the streets, chanting and vandalising. In Piramagroon, northwest of Sulaimania, none of the parties were spared the ire of the crowds, who burned down all their offices.

The anger, which had been contained with promises of a bright post-IS future, has now boiled over.

Former KRG President Massoud Barzani's gamble with an ill-timed referendum over Kurdish independence backfired. Guided in part by hubris and a desire to scare neighbouring countries who had long opposed Kurdish independence, Barzani's gamble resulted in a brutal economic blockade imposed by most Arab countries as well as Turkey and Iran.

This further tightened the noose around Kurdish necks, now short on cash and hope.

Then there was the incident in Kirkuk last October, which resulted in the takeover of the city by Iraqi troops and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces. Kirkuk, after all, has been likened to the "Kurdish Jerusalem". This sparked accusations of treason by the Kurdish public because it recalled Massoud Barzani's invitation in 1996 for Saddam Hussein to help him defeat rival Jalal Talabani's PUK.

The two Kurdish factions had been mired in civil war from 1994 to 1997. Many Kurds east of Degala have still not forgiven Barzani, because he was seen as having sold out the Kurdish cause for the sake of his own supremacy.

Kurdish politicians have usually managed with some dexterity to manipulate Kurdish public opinion

Kafkaesque mood

Throughout the decades since the establishment of the Iraqi state in the wake of the First World War, Kurdish politicians have usually managed with some dexterity to manipulate Kurdish public opinion - either by recalling historic wrongs committed by imperialists or conjuring threats both real and imagined - to rally people around the Kurdish flag and nation.

In the past few years, however, cynicism has replaced the fervent patriotism shared by Kurds across partisan divides, with one Kurdish intellectual calling the prevailing mood "Kafkaesque". While unprecedented numbers of young men and women signed up for Peshmerga service to fight IS, Kurdish cynics said this was not due to patriotism, but mainly because it was the only job that paid.

However the Sulaimania protests are resolved, what is clear is that this is a critical blow to the KRG at a time when its credibility and legitimacy are suffering.

Today, as there is talk of Baghdad sending troops to Sulaimania, Kurds are not only concerned about their future, but they are mourning the death of their dream of independence - a dream blighted not by foreign powers this time, but by their own leaders.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Iraqi Kurdish affairs for over a decade. In 2006, she launched Iraqi Kurdistan's first English-language news digest out of Sulaimania. 

Follow her on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.