Protesters have hurled stones and scuffled with riot police in the second largest city in Iraq’s Kurdish north, in the most intense show of discontent since an economic crisis hit the region.
Teachers, hospital workers and other public sector employees took to the streets on Thursday and went on strike for a week, demanding their salaries from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which are three months in arrears.
The protest focused on a five-star hotel in the centre of Sulaimaniyah, where political parties were meeting to resolve a deadlock over the presidency that has compounded the economic crisis.
President Massoud Barzani’s mandate expired on August 20 but rival factions have yet to agree on the terms to extend his tenure, and many Kurds accuse their leaders of using or even creating problems for leverage.
The demonstrations threaten to undermine stability in the region at a time when it is at war with Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group fighters.
The economic crisis began in early 2014 when Baghdad slashed funds to the region, and has been exacerbated by the conflict with ISIL and a drop in oil prices that has pushed the region to the verge of bankruptcy.
“The crises must not be mixed up with political matters that will take Kurdistan in an unstable direction,” the region’s deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, said at a meeting with the teacher’s union in Sulaimaniyah, which has backed the protests.
Thousands of young Kurds have left the region, heading to Europe as part of a larger exodus of people from the Middle East.
The last serious civil unrest in the region was in 2011, when Kurds protested against corruption and nepotism.