The civil unrest in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is being stoked by the coronavirus-related plunge in the oil price, which has hampered the war-battered country’s ability to foot a vast government wage bill.
The oil price crash has more than halved oil revenues which support 90 per cent of Iraq’s budget. This has forced the Baghdad central government, led by Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, to pledge drastic reform. The government has borrowed heavily to fund its public sector, which has trebled in size since the US-led invasion in 2003, costing equivalent to 25 per cent of gross domestic product.
The UN’s political mission in Iraq said it “condemn[ed] the acts of violence”, without naming perpetrators. The Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, a state-funded monitor, confirmed eight protesters have died in five different cities since demonstrations erupted on December 3.
Adil Hassan, a 43-year-old teacher, said he had been paid only four months’ worth of salary this year, and has attended demonstrations alongside fellow educators. Security forces “are being violent, using rubber bullets and throwing tear gas”, he said, adding he was detained and made to sign a declaration that he would stop protesting.
“Those protests are a result of the deteriorating living situation,” Mr Hassan said, vowing to continue. “They are not just riots.”
After furious protesters in Sulaymaniyah province torched political party offices, local authorities imposed curfews and blocked roads, while internet access was temporarily throttled. Security forces raided a broadcaster affiliated with a political opposition party, taking the channel off air.
KRI employees have often gone without their salaries since an oil price crash in 2014, while the economy has been hit hard by coronavirus lockdowns.
Protesters are “expressing their frustration with the authorities who have not been able to reach a permanent solution to the crisis,” said Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council. He added that about 1.3m people in the KRI depend on government salaries.
Mr Alaaldin warned that demonstrations could spread into the KRI’s western cities, which “would destabilise the whole area, and will have big implications on any hope of recovery”.
Iraq’s majority Kurdish northern provinces have their own regional government. The oil-rich territories are dominated by political parties affiliated to two powerful tribes. The ruling Barzani family of the western provinces holds the regional premiership through its Kurdistan Democratic party, while the Talabani clan’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party controls the east, where protests are raging.
While the KRI can strike its own oil deals, it theoretically shares revenues with Baghdad under a budget agreement. But KRI authorities complain that, because of a long-running dispute, Baghdad has failed to transfer cash for salaries.
Iraq’s southern regions have been rocked by mass protests since October 2019. More than 500 people were killed during a vicious crackdown but public anger toppled the former administration. Iraq is also struggling to rebuild after its devastating fight against Sunni jihadis Isis.