Protest and Crackdown in South Kurdistan

This December, Kurdish news-watchers have seen a series of portraits of young men appear on their screens. Very young men, who should have had their whole lives ahead of them, but who saw no future in the corruption that pervades the politics and economy of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (South Kurdistan). They went out into the streets to claim a future, but all they found was a shroud, after security forces responded to protestors with live ammunition. A great many more people have been arrested, including journalists who were covering what is happening, and the main television station not run by the government has been shut down.

The anti-government protests have expanded beyond their immediate cause in the unpaid salaries of the region’s extensive public sector. Those on the streets were venting their frustration at years of corrupt and incompetent government, which have seen a small feudal elite, dominated by the Barzani family, amass huge wealth at the expense of the rest of the population.

As in so many oil-rich areas, South Kurdistan has suffered from the curse of the black gold – not only in war, but also in corruption, and in an economy almost totally dependent on this one volatile industry. There has been little attempt to develop other sources of income, and a large part of the population relies on government jobs. For these people, this has given them a small stake in the system, but delays and cuts in public sector salaries, together with failing services, have destroyed even this grossly-unfair social contract.

Rather than address underlying problems, the government has attempted to suppress the protests, so increasing public anger. Offices of both government parties – the Barzanis’ KDP and the PUK – have been torched, but so have offices of other parties in a show of frustration with the whole political system that has brought the region to this position.

So far, the protests have lacked coherent leadership and strategy, but the problems are only growing, and there is space for new movements to emerge – if not now, then in the near future.

The immediate cause of the unpaid salaries has been a long-running budget dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Iraqi federal government, which is itself part of a bigger dispute about the region’s independence. To counter the power of Bagdad, the KDP has made agreements with Turkey, and they are heavily dependent on Turkey for selling the region’s oil. South Kurdistan’s two main political parties each have their own peshmerga forces (which in the 1990s fought a civil war). The KDP Peshmerga have been drawn into Turkey’s attack on the PKK guerrillas, who were already entrenched in the South Kurdistan mountains long before the establishment of the autonomous Kurdistan region following the first Gulf War. The KDP has allowed Turkey to set up military bases in South Kurdistan and to carry out bombing raids. Last Sunday, two PKK guerrillas were seriously wounded – one fatally – when their vehicle was stopped by KDP forces, and one KDP peshmerga died in the attack.

Governments facing dissatisfied populations try and redirect their anger at stigmatised others. For Turkey, the Kurds have always served this function. The KDP have tried to build up anger against the PKK, even attempting to suggest that they, rather than people’s unmet frustrations, were responsible for the riotous turn of the demonstrations. However, outside KDP ranks, people recognise the danger of an intra-Kurdish civil war from which only Turkey would be the winner.

For much of the so-called ‘international community’, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seen as people to do business with, and although there has been criticism of their crackdown on the protestors, it has been muted by that false pretence at ‘balance’ that has become a hallmark of current politics. Thus, the British Consul General told (pro-government) Rudaw News that they were “concerned” about the use of live fire, and then added, “on the one hand, we call on the security authorities to respect the right to peaceful protest, and to exercise restraint. But on the other hand, we call on those protesting to do so peacefully.”

In a world in thrall to the worsening pandemic, major events can pass by barely noticed by a wider world, which makes it all the more important to share news of what is happening and show our solidarity to those fighting for their rights. SSK is holding a meeting on these recent events, with two  Kurdish former MPs who were detained for nearly a week for taking part in the protests – details on the flyer. We also ask people in the UK to write to their MP and request they sign the Early Day Motion tabled by Chris Stephens MP, calling for transparency and democracy in the Kurdish Regional Government. You can find your MP here.

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