BAGHDAD: Thousands of Iraqi Kurds took to the streets in the Kurdish region on Monday to protest the lack of funds and basic services. The demonstrators also demanded the resignation of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), eye witnesses and officials told Arab News.
Riots broke out when protesters set fire to a number of government buildings and party headquarters in Sulaimaniyah, including the offices of the two ruling parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Police opened fire, using tear gas to disperse demonstrators. Scores were injured in multiple demonstrations in Irbil and Sulaimaniyah, local officials told Arab News.
TV footage, circulated by several Kurdish channels, showed demonstrators carrying small white banners with one word written in red "Go"; others carried red cards. Other footage showed dozens of jubilant protesters gathered in front of a KDP headquarters engulfed in flames.
Kurdish security services are on high alert as the demonstrations are expected to spread to other areas within the region, officials said.
"People are protesting delays in payment of their salaries which have not been paid for months; protesters are also angry about the absence of basic services in the region," Ghayath Al-Suraji, a senior PUK leader in Kurdistan, told Arab News.
"The (Kurdish) region has been facing a serious financial crisis due to the disagreement between Baghdad and Kurdistan," Al-Suraji said.
Regional sources told Arab News that government officials had only received 25 percent of their salaries for the past two years. In addition, basic daily services, specifically electricity and fuel supplies, have been reduced. These punitive measures were imposed by Baghdad in response to the controversial referendum on independence by the KRG in late September and have worsened the situation, officials said.
Baghdad has banned international flights to and from regional airports and has coordinated with Iran and Turkey to close border crossings into and out of Kurdistan. The revenues from the internal airports and the smuggling of oil seized by the KRG after 2014 were the backbone of the region's economy.
"The KRG has not paid even a penny to government employees in the region for three months," a senior Kurdish official told Arab News.
"The punitive measures (taken by Baghdad) have divided the oil exports of the region in half and the shutdown of the border crossings has deprived the region of the fuel which is vital for life in this mountainous area," the official said. "We were exporting crude oil to Turkey and Iran via the main pipeline network, but now we are exporting it through tankers which means decreased quantities and increased expenses."