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Iraq: Kurdish security forces kill six protesters

Angry Kurdish protesters torch headquarters of ruling parties while authorities respond with bullets
The HQ of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) after it was set ablaze during anti-government protests in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, 8 December 2020 (Reuters)
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Sulaimaniyah, Iraq

Peaceful protests over unpaid salaries and unemployment in Iraq's Kurdish region have descended into violence, with at least six demonstrators killed by security services and local government buildings torched since Monday.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) also responded to the demonstrations by shutting down an opposition media channel and internet across over the region.

The protests, which began on 3 December, escalated on Monday afternoon as angry protesters in the Said Sadiq district of Halabja Province torched the headquarters of all political parties - including opposition - as well as police stations and the headquarters of the district’s mayor.

'Kurdish authorities deem Saray Azadi a red line for holding demonstrations. They know if peaceful demonstrations erupt there, Erbil and Duhok provinces will soon follow'

- Adil Hassan, a teacher 

Adam Yahya, a 26-year-old Kurdish youth, was shot dead on Monday while participating in protests in the town of Chamchamal, east of the KRG capital Erbil.

A brother of the slain youth, however, told Rojnews that Yahya was not a protester but had just been passing by a branch of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) when party militias opened fire on him, hitting him in the chest and killing him.

Another youth, Ako Salman, was shot dead by gunmen from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) branch in the Kifri district of Diyala Governorate. They opened fire on the protesters, who eventually torched the branch building, a source close to the scene told Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity.

The municipality building is seen after it was burnt during anti-government protests on the outskirt of Sulaimaniyah (Reuters)
A municipality building after being torched during anti-government protests on the outskirt of Sulaimaniyah on 7 December (Reuters)

Hersh Salim, deputy director of Sulaymaniyah health directorate confirmed to MEE the killing of two persons on Monday, as well as the injuring of 26 other protesters, with some in critical condition.

Three more protesters from Chamchamal were killed as protests continued on Tuesday, while another was killed in the nearby Takia sub-district by militias guarding the offices of the PUK and KDP.

Saray Azadi 'a red line'

The anti-government demonstrations kicked off on 3 December when thousands of teachers and employees of the KRG peacefully marched towards Saray Azadi Square, a crowded area in the heart of Sulaymaniyah city, demanding their delayed salaries, the resignation of the KRG and the holding of snap parliamentary elections.

In response, security forces used tear gas, plastic bullets, water cannons and finally live ammunition to disperse demonstrators.

“Two teachers fainted due to inhaling the gas,” Adil Hassan, a teacher who participated in the demonstration in Sulaimaniyah and who was detained for two days along with nearly 50 other activists, told MEE.

“Kurdish authorities deem Saray Azadi a red line for holding demonstrations. They know if peaceful demonstrations erupt there, Erbil and Duhok provinces will soon follow. People live in dire financial situations.”

Footage of a 12-year-old boy collapsing after inhaling tear gas has been widely circulating on social media in the country.

"I am still have breathing problems," the boy told MEE, on condition of anonymity.

He said he had been selling packs of cigarettes in downtown Sulaymaniyah at the time and had not been taking part in the protests.

"Security forces fired several canisters of tear gas, one landed near my feet - I fainted immediately," he explained.

Corruption

The KRG is yet to pay October salaries to its nearly 1.2 million public-sector employees.

It claims that the revenue from exporting an average 446,000 barrels of oil per day independently from the federal government in Baghdad did not cover the public payroll.

But opposition parties, local citizens and even factions within the three ruling parties accuse senior officials within those parties - the KDP, Gorran and PUK - of corruption and hiding real revenue numbers from exporting oil through Turkey.

'Barzani’s cabinet has failed to provide basic services to people. It continues to crackdown on activists and journalists'

- Shirin Amin, member of KRG parliament

Shirin Amin, widow of slain journalist Kawa Garmiani and a lawmaker from Gorran, told MEE that elections needed to be held as soon as possible.

“Barzani’s cabinet has failed to provide basic services to people. It continues to crack down on activists and journalists - thus this government should be dissolved and early elections be held,” she said.

Amin, who took part in the early November protests, said she fainted as a result of being hit by tear gas.

“I suffered from breathing and throat problems for three days, and received medical treatment,” she said.

Numerous anti-government protesters in southern Iraq have been killed after being hit by tear gas canisters.

Gorran has splintered into two separate groups over whether they should remain in the governing coalition or announce their withdrawal.

TV station closure

On 6 December, angry protesters torched the headquarters of the PUK and KDP in the Piramagrun sub-district, 39km northwest of Sulaymaniyah, before spreading to the nearby Bazian subdistrict.

NRT, a satellite channel owned by Shaswar Abdulwahid, a former businessman and current leader of the New Generation opposition party, covered the protests live.

'The reason behind the closure is political, since the channel was always covered the Kurdish protests'

- Rebwar Abdul Rahman, NRT's news director

The following day, security forces closed down the broadcaster’s main office in Sulaymaniyah city.

The KRG Ministry of Culture announced in a statement, seen by MEE, that it decided to shut down the broadcaster for breaching the "law for regulating frequency".

However, NRT said the move was politically motivated and aimed at curbing free press.

“The reason behind the closure is political, since the channel was always covering the Kurdish protests,” Rebwar Abdul Rahman, NRT’s news director told MEE following a press conference in front of the office of his closed channel.

“Nevertheless, if we had any shortcomings it is not a pretext for shutting down a media channel.”

Turkey oil pact

While the KRG cannot pay its own employees, offer job opportunities to thousands of fresh university graduates or offer basic public services, it is also unwilling to submit its oil to Baghdad in return for a nearly 12 percent share of the federal budget.

KRG President Nechirvan Barzani on 15 November admitted for the first time to his signing of a 50-year energy pact with Turkey seven years ago.

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The vague pact has been seen by many Kurdish MPs and citizens as the main reason behind the region’s financial crises, which started in 2014 when oil prices sharply declined and the KRG was involved in fighting the Islamic State group.

Nechirvan did not have any official responsibilities in the KRG when he signed the pact with Turkey in 2012. Iraq’s current president, Barham Salih, was also then the KRG prime minister.

A senior KDP delegation on Sunday visited Sulaimaniyah, where it met with senior PUK and Gorran officials.

A source close to the meeting told MEE that the PUK and Gorran urged the KDP to compromise and reach an oil-per-budget agreement with Baghdad. But the KDP told its two partners it would not submit oil under any circumstances.

Another meeting of the ruling parties, sponsored by Barzani, is taking place on Tuesday. But it is not expected to be fruitful and could further inflame the anger of Kurdish citizens.