Major protests resumed last month in many areas of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq for the first time since the Arab Spring. Demonstrators called for the dissolution of the regional cabinet, better public services, reforms, anti-corruption efforts, and the payment of public employees’ salaries on time and in full. Five protesters were killed and more than 100 wounded in clashes with security forces, while hundreds of activists, journalists, and protesters were arrested. The protests not only stemmed from grievances about the outcome of the Kurdish independence referendum and its consequences, but from long-standing demands for reforms that remain unaddressed. The demonstrations have subsided, but if the Kurdistan government continues to fail to meet demands, protests may reoccur and armed struggle could increasingly become a possibility, while the violence could be used as leverage by remnants of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. Pressure on Kurdish leadership from the international community, including the United States, Iraqi government, and European Union, could help Kurdistan avoid further escalation of violence and build lasting change
The economic and political crises in Kurdistan were the main issues prompting people to take to the street. Exacerbated by the September referendum, the economic problems extend back to the Kurdish government’s decision in 2013 to export oil independently from Baghdad, as well as repercussions from its participation in the war against the Islamic State. Local and international investment has collapsed, many companies have ceased operations, the market is performing poorly, and tourism has completely halted because of the international blockade on Kurdish airports, the closure of border crossings, and the difficulty for Iraqis from other governorates to visit the Kurdish region. Politically, the referendum further divided Kurdish society, rather than uniting political parties and the people. Afterward, the two largest parties—the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—lost credibility among many Kurds, in addition to territories disputed with Iraq that were seized back from Kurdistan on October 16, leaving many even further disappointed in their government.
The result was that many in Kurdistan were left hungry, with empty pockets and uncertain futures, and they blamed the political elite for their grievances and the effect on their livelihoods. However, rather than announcing reforms and meeting the Iraqi government conditions to start negotiations and resolve the post-referendum issues, the KDP and PUK further strengthened their grip on power. Doing so ignored the demands of many Kurds, as well other political parties, including the Change Movement (Gorran), the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, and the New Generation, to dissolve the current cabinet and form an interim government, set a date for holding elections, and form a national committee to negotiate with Baghdad on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution.
The KDP and PUK have reacted strongly to the protests. The PUK initially allowed them, but on the second day decided to crack down on the protesters with violent means. The largest Kurdish media corporation, Nalia Radio and Television, was shut down by government and PUK party forces. The KDP prevented protests from erupting in its zone, and instead spread thousands of security, Peshmerga, and police forces, who attacked protesters when they stormed the KDP branch headquarters in Sulaimaniya and Halabjah governorates. Protesters torched dozens of party and governmental buildings. Meanwhile, KIG and Gorran withdrew from the current cabinet, and Kurdistan Parliament Speaker Yusuf Muhammad resigned. In Sulaimaniya, an agreement between the Gorran and PUK that had helped stabilize the city in the past five years was suspended, risking further crackdowns on Gorran supporters there. The PUK, especially the Talabani family, see the protests as a coup against them, as within Gorran and the PUK itself there are strong rivals to the family who have called to an end of family rule in the Kurdistan region.
However, the disputes are not just among political parties, but within them. The KDP and the PUK are themselves divided. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was replaced by his nephew, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, also from the KDP, as the leading Kurdish leader in Iraq in the fallout of the referendum. Neither Barzani nor his deputy, Qubad Talabani of the PUK, are fully supported by their parties. Moreover, the internal divisions within the PUK are such that it sometimes fears an internal armed conflict. Therefore, Barzani and Talabani did not want to dissolve the current cabinet because they believed losing these positions may weaken them against hawkish rivals within their parties. The U.S. State Department statement saying that it looked forward to engaging with Barzani and Talabani was interpreted by them as a green light to conduct their agenda. On one hand, Talabani and Barzani used this statement to challenge rivals within their parties, but they have also used it against former opposition parties and new political groups.
Recurring protests in Kurdistan often escalate into violence because of the lack of response from the Kurdish government. Protests and demonstrations have been strong tools used by the Kurdish people to express their demands over the past 26 years of autonomous Kurdish rule, especially given that until 2006, the region did not have independent media outlets, and until 2009, the Kurdistan Parliament was inactive because it was completely controlled by the KDP and PUK and lacked opposition parties. When the Arab Spring shook the structure of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world, Kurdish protests erupted in Sulaimaniya on February 17, 2011. Ten protesters were killed and more than 500 wounded. In response, the parliament approved a bill known as Decision No. 2, which included 17 points as part of an agreement between the government and opposition groups alongside protesters. The demands included the protection of demonstrations by badged police officers rather than plain-clothed police, the prohibition of Peshmerga from participating in internal political conflicts, an end to detainment of demonstrators with no legal proceedings, the planning and implementation of reform projects, improvements to standard of living and political freedoms and rights, and a national political dialogue among parties represented in the parliament.
The implementation of this agreement could have helped to avoid the recent protests in Kurdistan, but the region’s leadership failed to do so. Kurdish protests will not be silenced by force. In the past five decades, people have experienced more wars than peaceful demonstrations; therefore, protesters’ demands should be met so that society learns to take to the streets peacefully rather than take up arms. (Indeed, a group from Garmyan posted a video this week calling for an armed uprising against Kurdish politicians.) If protests reignite and escalate into violence, Kurdistan, especially Sulaimaniya, could be further exposed to control by eternal forces—particularly Iran, which is experienced in manipulating vulnerable parties and families in the region—as each party seeks a regional ally to guarantee survival. Furthermore, protesters, Gorran, the KIG, and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice believe that the KDP and PUK are experiencing their weakest days after the fallout of the referendum and their inability to resolve economic and political crises. These opposition parties do not want to miss an opportunity to put an end to the KDP and PUK monopoly on political, cultural, security, economic, government, and private and commercial fields. Like the 2011 protests, last month’s demonstrations were silenced in a government crackdown; this time, however, no efforts were made to meet protesters’ demands and the factors that caused them remain in place. The protests will likely reemerge unless the Kurdish government finally takes steps to address them or comes to a constructive agreement with the Iraqi government to resolve outstanding issues.