There is a gnawing sense that the war against ISIL may be the final test for Iraq’s Kurds.
The violent protests that broke out in the Iraqi Kurdish cities of Sulaimania and Halabja are a manifestation of long-festering tensions and came as no surprise to “Kurdistan” watchers.
But they may have as much to do with anger over delayed public sector salaries as they do with Machiavellian wrangling by parties involved in resolving the so-called “presidential crisis” due to Massoud Barzani’s refusal to step aside after his term expired on August 19.
Sources in Sulaimania insist the protests would stop if the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would only dole out the salaries that have been withheld for three months now. Bickering between Baghdad and Erbil over oil revenues has meant that the KRG has not received its share of the annual budget, but critics say the salaries could have been paid out of proceeds from the KRG’s oil sales to Turkey – estimated at an average of 600,000 barrels per day.
The protests are part of a bigger picture with many Kurdish analysts saying it is a revival of the dangerous powerplay between long-time rivals, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – and now, the relative newcomer, the Gorran (Change) Movement.
Gorran was founded in 2009 by former PUK cadre, with “calls for an end to monopoly control of power” and a stated mission to “uproot rampant corruption”.
People are tired. I no longer work for the public sector, so I'm a free man. I can say what I want, and I can vote however I want. People are tired of shouting and getting no response. They want to be heard.
“The KRG – led by the KDP – are independently sending oil to Turkey through their newly constructed oil pipeline,” said Rand Khalid, an independent Iraqi Kurdish analyst and a resident of Sulaimania. “However, the money from the oil revenues is nowhere to be found, and Gorran is accusing the KDP of taking it all for themselves.”
He added: “Since Gorran entered the political scene in 2009, it has helped, in one way or another … the people to see the truth; that the people were being used as pawns by the two main political parties back then: KDP and PUK.”
Supporters of the KDP allege that the protests, which began on Thursday to coincide with the five-party meeting in Sulaimania on the presidential crisis and had turned violent on Saturday, have been orchestrated by Gorran to use as leverage in the talks over what has now become a presidential stalemate.
Some KDP parliamentarians have gone so far as to call it an “attempted coup” against 69-year-old Barzani, who has been the KRG’s president since 2005 and headed the KDP since 1979.
For their part, sources close to the PUK and Gorran suggest the protests erupted as a result of a perception that the KDP may be using public sector salaries as a bargaining chip in the negotiations. They posit that if there were an attempted coup in progress, it is the KDP mounting the coup on democracy by blocking entry to the parliament speaker.
At a press conference on Monday, parliament speaker (and Gorran member) Yousef Mohammed called the move “a coup against the legitimacy of the parliament” and “a dangerous development for the political process in Kurdistan”.
He added: “The forces that stopped us from entering Erbil would have been enough to liberate [Sinjar].”
Sinjar, home to most of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, was taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in August 2014, during which hundreds of Yazidi men were slaughtered in what came to be known as the “Sinjar Massacre“.
According to Darya Ibrahim, a 34-year-old graphic artist in Sulaimania, people are “losing faith in the regional government and their country day by day”.
“The real problem started the day the KDP told the other parties that they wanted Barzani to stay in power after his term expired,” he told Al Jazeera. “This whole thing is about the KDP’s plan to kick Gorran out of government. Gorran is trying to keep the KDP’s influence in check. [KDP] sees them as an obstacle.”
He also expressed scepticism, which is shared by many on the Sulaimania street, over how the protests degenerated into violence: “The protests began peacefully over the salaries, and then suddenly turned violent. Why? Who bombed the KDP offices? Nobody really believes anyone from Sulaimania or the area would do this.”
For many, the silence from the KRG leadership on the matter has further exacerbated the situation – with conspiracy theories filling in the gaps.
Lara Fatah, an independent analyst of Iraqi Kurdish affairs, said: “What is frustrating the people is that neither the president, the prime minister, nor his deputy have directly addressed the nation about what is happening. For many, it is further underlining the lack of leadership, and PUK supporters are particularly frustrated at the silence of their leadership.”
Still, few would dispute that there has been an overwhelming malaise in the Kurdish areas over a slew of issues, with one leading Iraqi Kurdish intellectual and novelist calling it “Kafkaesque times”.
Average Iraqi Kurds have for months endured daily hardships resulting from the debacle over the budget, falling oil prices, and the ongoing war with ISIL being fought just 60km from Sulaimania. These conditions have brought business to a grinding halt for the region’s restaurants, supermarkets, shops and even construction firms.
Over a decade after the US-led invasion of Iraq, which led to the ouster of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime, average Kurds in the semi-autonomous northern region still endure daily hardships, and many have grown increasingly resentful of having to make sacrifices yet again for a Quixotic nationalist cause.
“People are tired,” said Darya Ibrahim. “I no longer work for the public sector, so I’m a free man. I can say what I want, and I can vote however I want. People are tired of shouting and getting no response. They want to be heard.”