As demonstrators decry the growing wealth gap between people and politicians, Kurdish leaders have cast the protests as a conspiracy, blocking the Internet and arresting journalists who are covering the events.
In the city of Sulaymaniyah on Friday, security forces fired tear gas on hundreds of protesters demanding the release of government salaries and pensions. The funds, controlled by authorities in Baghdad, have been delayed as a result of economic crisis and political disputes with the semiautonomous Kurdish leadership.
In the surrounding towns and villages, soldiers played cat-and-mouse with demonstrators, many of them in their teens.
“Salaries mean money, of course, but they also mean power,” said Hossein Othman, a former public servant in Saidsadiq, about 20 miles southeast of Sulaymaniyah. “When they don’t pay us, when they withhold our rights, it depletes our sense of self. It just hits you so hard. It’s about dignity.”
Iraq’s Kurdish region is ruled by two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and both have been blamed for years of systematic corruption, neglect and political favoritism. This past week, protesters have burned buildings belonging to both.
“In comparison to previous protests these are significant as the current fiscal crisis affects larger swaths of the population,” said Lahib Higel, the International Crisis Group’s senior Iraq analyst. “Although the current protests are a direct consequence of lack of salaries, it builds on years of financial mismanagement.”
According to the United Nations, poverty levels have doubled across Iraqi Kurdistan since 2018, and more than a third of families get by on less than $400 a month. The coronavirus pandemic has only deepened that deprivation, with unemployment on the rise as authorities struggle to sustain a bloated public-sector wage bill.
At least seven people have been killed in the protest violence in northern Iraq, according to the country’s human rights commission. Most of the dead have been young men and teenagers as young as 13.
The United Nations said Tuesday that investigations into those killings should begin “immediately.”
Although small, the protests contain echoes of the mass demonstrations against decades of corruption and sectarian rule that unseated the government in Baghdad last year. According to a survey commissioned by the Chatham House Iraq Initiative, those protests drew widespread sympathy in Kurdistan, as well as elsewhere in the country.
“Demonstrations may well become more frequent and turbulent” in Kurdish regions if the roots of unrest are not addressed, Higel said.
Main squares have been closed by security forces in the Kurdish north. Activists have been detained from their homes in an apparent attempt to halt further dissent. Instead, protesters gather in marketplaces or on roadsides near government buildings, before soldiers pour in to shut them down and detain whom they can.
On the road to Sulaymaniyah this past week, security forces were facing a challenge that looked akin to chasing ghosts. Every time they reached the roads or intersections, where young teenagers had been burning tires not long before, all they found there were embers. And so village by village they went, looking for suspects and stationing scores of forces where demonstrators had been seen in previous days.
As Washington Post reporters drove toward Saidsadiq, where security forces opened fire on protesters this past week, a Kurdish security official offered his own advice as to how to proceed: “Avoid the teenagers there. You mustn’t listen to them. They’ve got confused ideas in their heads.”
But in Saidsadiq, a dilapidated area where trash piled up on the potholed main roads, the protesters insisted that they had tried to work through the system for years — voting in referendums and elections — without feeling that their voices had been heard.
“The two main ruling parties hold absolute power. All they want is to keep their power,” said Ahmed Amin, an activist who said that several of his friends had been arrested participating in demonstrations during recent days.
“As a people, we have nothing to live for,” he added. “They have destroyed our future, they have taken our hope. That’s why we’re here.”
Several blocks away, the road was filling with mourners paying their respects to the family of Harem Ali, a tousle-haired 13-year-old shot dead by security forces as he joined the protests Tuesday. His father, Ali, was a retired public servant who had not received his government pension for months.
“He knows why his son was out there,” said a family friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisals from the security forces if he discussed a protest-related topic. “Harem felt his father’s humiliation so deeply, it made him angry.”
At times, his father felt too broken to greet the visitors. And so his oldest son, Hayman, stood out in the darkness instead, shaking neighbors’ hands as he stared numbly down at his feet.
Harem, he said, had been threatened with a grounding if he sneaked out to the protests again. His family thought he was still in his room when the phone call came through to say he had been shot.
“He’s a child. They killed a child,” Hayman said. He paused, and then his tone sharpened. “These protests are the only way we can express our anger. These protests are us screaming.”
Renwar Najm contributed to this report.