Baghdad, Iraq – Authorities in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region have promised to provide financial support to university students, according to state media, after days of protests demanding the reinstatement of a monthly stipend that was cut seven years ago.
The move by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) late on Wednesday came after several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Sulaimaniyah for the fourth straight day. Security forces fired live shots in the city’s Sara Square to disperse the crowd, wounding one student, local NRT broadcaster reported.
It was not immediately clear how much money the authorities would provide. Prior to 2014, the KRG was providing students with a monthly stipend of 60,000 to 100,000 Iraqi dinars (roughly $40 to $70). However, the allowance was then cancelled, with authorities citing the budget allocated to fight the ISIL (ISIS) armed group and the global slump in oil prices.
With ISIL now largely defeated and the oil price recovering, students have been demanding the resumption of the payment.
The protests that began on Sunday turned increasingly violent as days went by, with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as deploying water cannon, to disperse the demonstrators who blocked main roads in Sulaimaniyah. Protesters, meanwhile, threw rocks and tear gas canisters at the security forces, and also set ablaze a number of government buildings in the city.
Smaller-scale protests also spread to other cities in the region, including Erbil, Halabja, Kalar, and Koya. A solidarity demonstration attended by a few dozen people was also held in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, on Tuesday evening.
The hashtag #SulaymaniyahOppresses also started trending on Twitter as people shared their frustrations over the government’s response towards what they called “peaceful protesters”.
On Wednesday, police prevented journalists from accessing the University of Sulaimaniyah, one of the main flashpoints since the protests began. Security forces entered the grounds and fired tear gas towards students who remained on campus, according an Al Jazeera reporter on the site. The police also beat protesters and reporters alike with electric shock batons, said the journalist.
“We are asking for our legitimate right which is the resumption of paying our monthly stipends, but the Kurdish government is responding with deploying all these security and Peshmerga forces,” Awin, a second year female student from Sulaimaniyah Technical Institute, told Al Jazeera earlier on Wednesday, asking that only her first name be mentioned for fears of reprisals.
Awin insisted the protesters were “not creating chaos and violence” and said “it was the Kurdish security forces who were confronting the unarmed students”
The KRG has not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Peshraw Hama Jan, assistant of the president of University of Sulaymaniyah, said the institution has “always supported the legitimate rights of our students and their demand for the restoration of stipends is fully legitimate”, adding that they have “raised their demands to the KRG Minister of Higher Education Aram Muhammed”.
“We are calling on our students to not let some fellow students diverge the peaceful demonstrations into violence,” Hama Jan told Al Jazeera.
Some officials in recent days have also voiced their support for the students.
Haval Abubaker, the governor of the Sulaimaniyah province, wrote on Facebook on Monday that “the province supports the [students’] requests and is against violence and interference”.
‘Youth increasingly hopeless’
Iraq’s Kurdish region has seen protests during the past few years across areas dominated by both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union Kurdistan (PUK), the two parties that effectively have enjoyed a political and economic duopoly.
Despite being hailed as the goal for the development of the rest of Iraq, the region has had a long track record of corruption and financial mismanagement.
Lately, it has also come under an international spotlight amid the continuing refugee crisis at the Belarus-Poland border. Many Iraqi Kurds embarked on the journey to Europe in recent weeks, with a number of them seeking better economic opportunities.
“Students came out demanding their rights allocated to them, which is a very modest stipend, but they were confronted by unjust forces,” Mustafa Khalid, a resident of Sulaimaniyah, told Al Jazeera.
“And everyone was surprised that we saw migrants on the borders of Belarus – this is the reason,” he said.
Reacting to the news about the financial support, Khalid said, “We would have to see whether these allowances will be materialised and that they are not just words.”
“But we also need to see the change in our education system and the PUK thugs will be responsible for attacking peaceful protesters.”
Kamaran Palani, a research fellow at Middle East Research Institute, an Erbil-based think-tank, wrote on Twitter that “youth protests in Iraqi Kurdistan are a response to and outcome of their frustration.
“Without viable recourse to mechanisms that might allow youth to transform their difficult circumstances, young people are growing increasingly hopeless, and are eager to resist in different forms.”
Shawn Yuan reported from Baghdad, and Dana Taib Menmy reported from Sulaimaniyah.