Protests rock Iraqi Kurdistan despite police clamp down

Sulaimaniyah (Iraq) (AFP) –


Protests raged for a third day in Iraqi Kurdistan Wednesday despite a clampdown by security forces after five people were killed as ire exploded at the calamitous fallout from an independence vote.

Demonstrators in the town of Rania, where five protesters were shot dead and dozens wounded Tuesday, and in nearby Qalat Diza torched the offices of several political parties as people vented their anger at the authorities over a worsening economic crisis and corruption.

A disputed Kurdish referendum in September delivered a resounding "yes" for independence, but drew sweeping reprisals from Baghdad which dealt a heavy blow to the region's already flagging economy.

Protesters have unleashed their fury at all five of the autonomous Kurdish region's main political parties, not just the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of former regional president Massud Barzani, who organised the fateful poll.

Since Monday roughly 200 people have been injured as at least 15 party offices and a town hall were set ablaze in a string of locations.

Faced by the unprecedented fury at the political status quo, the Goran party and Kurdistan Islamic Group announced they were withdrawing their ministers from the regional government.

- Show of 'despair' -

"We are burning the offices of the political parties that are part of the government and are responsible for our economic suffering," an activist told AFP, asking not to be identified for security reasons.

"Citizens want to show that they are in despair over the actions of all the parties that have led Kurdistan to bankruptcy."

In a bid to quell the unrest, heavily armed troops and anti-riot police locked down Iraqi Kurdistan's second city Sulaimaniyah.

Armoured personnel carriers, water cannon and trucks mounted with machineguns were stationed at all of the city's main crossroads, an AFP correspondent reported.

There was virtually no traffic and most shops were closed, particularly around the central Saray Square, the focal point of the protests against the disastrous fallout from an independence referendum.

- 'Violence is unacceptable' -

The independence vote has already caused a political shake-up in Kurdistan, with veteran leader Massud Barzani stepping down in October.

That decision came after Baghdad seized back swathes of disputed oil-rich territory, gutting the region's coffers.

Prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, the ex-president's nephew, issued an appeal for calm from Germany where he was on a visit on Tuesday.

"The region is going through a difficult period. Your frustrations are understandable and I hear them," he said.

"But violence is unacceptable. I ask you to hold peaceful demonstrations."

Anger, however, is running deep in the region as economic problems -- triggered by the slump in oil prices since 2014 -- have worsened dramatically.

Residents in the capital Arbil have told AFP that salaries have been shorn in half in the past few months and are paid only erratically.

As temperatures drop with winter setting the spiralling price of heating fuel looks set to bite, while mains power has been cut to only four hours each day.

French Kurdistan specialist Cyril Roussel said that there is a "feeling of betrayal, defeat and humiliation among the people" in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"People feel betrayed and region's coffers are empty," he said.

Meanwhile the central government has given short shrift to the economic problems roiling Kurdistan, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi refusing to cover the salaries of Kurdish civil servants.

"Baghdad is waiting for the region to go bankrupt to then negotiate from a position of force," Roussel said.