Baghdad, Iraq – Iraqi President Barham Salih has called for an end to “corruption, looting, plundering and smuggling” following a sixth day of protests in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah province.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets to demonstrate against the political leadership, high unemployment rate and lack of public services.
They also demanded that their salaries be paid in full.
Local media reported that at least six protesters have been killed in the clashes with security forces.
“Violence is not a solution to confront the legitimate demands of citizens,” President Salih said in his statement on Tuesday.
“The will and the demands of the peaceful demonstrators must be respected. We demand that the security forces behave in accordance with the law and refrain from using violence.”
On Monday night, internet access was momentarily restricted to just 48 percent of its ordinary levels, according to internet observatory Netblocks, while local television channel NRT News was taken off air.
Last week, demonstrators set fire to several government buildings, including offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which they accuse of corruption.
In a series of tweets on Monday, Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani said the current economic crisis was forced on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) “by outside events”.
“Despite the KRG showing all possible willingness and flexibility in the search for a settlement within that framework, the federal government has yet to release our rightful share of the budget,” wrote Barzani.
However, not everyone is blaming Baghdad for the problems.
“The Iraqi government is not responsible for Kurdistan’s salary,” said 30-year-old Hiwa, a protester from Chamchamal, a town west of Sulaymaniyah.
Hiwa, an employee with the KRG, joined the protesters in his hometown on Monday to demand his full salary, which he says has been slashed in half, leaving his household financially stretched.
‘Social contract broken’
On Tuesday, leading Kurdish parties are meeting in Erbil to discuss the salary delays.
Protests in Iraq’s Kurdish region, the semi-autonomous enclave, have been taking place over the years.
“Protests are likely to re-emerge over the same issues that have sparked them over the past decade,” Shivan Fazil, a researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“The social contract is broken, [and the] KRG is no longer able to fill its end of the bargain as it once did, by providing jobs and services in return for acquiescence.”
In October 2015, five people were killed in a wave of similar protests north of Sulaymaniyah. The protests reignited in 2016 and 2017 due to unpaid salaries.
“Historically, since 2011, people in the Kurdistan region of Iraq have protested against corruption, along with calls for transparency and accountability, and, more recently, against austerity measures, delays in payment and cuts to the salaries of public sector employees as well as poor governance,” said Fazil.
“We can see that solutions are unlikely which means protests will return. The impact of COVID-19 and the KRG’s response to it, paired with budgetary disputes and low oil prices, will only act to exacerbate problems that have strained state-society relations.”