The current count is 80 people wounded and five dead in Iraqi Kurdistan as a result of massive protests held in response to a denial for independence after September’s referendum vote. Kurdish citizens predominantly voted in favor of cession from the Iraqi government and Baghdad’s stranglehold on Kurdistan’s economy, but Iraq responded swiftly with the proxy invasion of Kirkuk by the infamous Hashd Al-Shabi paramilitary forces and Iranian PMU militia. In turn this created massive backlash from the Kurdish community who have begun protesting the failure of democracy in their society and the failure of their “elected” officials to take action in the defense of Kurdistan’s autonomy.
It has been reported by several Kurdish media outlets that the militias have executed captured Peshmerga soldiers and civilians around the Kirkuk region during this occupation. While protesting has long had its place in the Kurdish region, typically over wages being delayed from the Iraqi government, it has never reached a boiling point of quite this magnitude. While most of the previous ones have been relatively peaceful in nature with nothing more than chanting and walking a designated route, usually past a government building, this is no loner the case.
Every reputable political party is being targeted for their general collective failure it seems, travel is being restricted and Kurdistan is close to entering a state of martial law. The Mayor of Koysinjaq’s office was set ablaze the other day while protesters forced their way into the Democratic Party of Kurdistan’s offices after throwing debris and rocks at them. In the city of Sulaymaniyah, the capital of the patriotic Union of Kurdistan, another major political party, police opened fire with rifles to disperse a crowd of protesters.
One particular protester was quoted saying,”You’re incapable – incapable of defending the disputed areas and incapable of ruling the Kurdistan region,” which seems to sum up the overall attitude felt by Kurds towards the situation and their autonomous government as a whole.
This is in reference to Kirkuk and its occupation by Iraqi Government-backed forces. While the land was traditionally Kurdish before Saddam’s rise to power, he seized it. It was lost and retaken by Kurdish Peshmerga forces during the conflict with the Islamic State, who are now all but finished as a caliphate. While these events are unfortunate for the Kurds, it was long-predicted these events would unfold following the Islamic State’s collapse and their failure to prepare is a direct reflection of the typical Kurdish attitude; a “cross that bridge when we get there,” mantra to say the least. The Kurdish outrage over these events extends not only to their own government but to the U.S. government as well.
The Islamic State was always destined to fail and the one question from everyone with an eye on the situation was, “what happens when they fall?” Most predicted a power grab vacuum or at the very least land-grab by Iraq since the Kurds were doing the majority of the heavy lifting in the fight. Huge swaths of land that were, previously Iraqi-held, occupied by the Islamic State fell to the Peshmerga’s bold advances supported by the coalition and their limitless supply of air and firepower superiority. It all had to come to an end eventually and little to no planning was executed by the autonomous Kurdish authority.
Large scale discontent and criticism were heard from the Kurdish community over what many felt was a move of abandonment by the United States and its allies after little effort was given to prevent the invasion and occupation of Kirkuk. Initially coalition air power patrolled the outskirts of Kirkuk when Iraqi backed forces took up their positions along the previous Kurdish border but soon pulled out when it became clear that they could not dissuade the militias from progressing. Many U.S. Special Forces were reported to have egressed from the Kirkuk region during these events. More importantly many of the Peshmerga retreated as well, abandoning entire bases and brigade outposts. The Peshmerga’s infamous 9th Brigade, one of the primary units that employed the use of foreign volunteer fighters during the Islamic State conflict, abandoned its primary and subsidiary forward operations bases in the city of Daquq when this was happening.
Their main outpost is now occupied by Hashd Al-Shabi forces who have taken up permanent residence and ownership of the previous residents vast weapons stores and vehicle supply. The order to retreat came from high-ranking officials within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s political party who had apparently made a backdoor deal with Iran over the sale of oil rights. While Kurdish outrage is understandable, it is unrealistic to expect that the U.S. and its allies would engage in open war with Iraqi and Iranian government-backed military forces regardless of right or wrong.
In response to these events the current Kurdish President, Massoud Barzani, pledged to step down from office this past October but has yet to follow through with his promise, despite Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani declaring voting would take place over the course of the following three months. This is nothing new, many in neighboring political parties have felt Barzani was a dictator for not relinquishing his presidency in 2016 during the last presidential election. On top of all this, the Kurdish national budget allotted by the Iraqi government has been cut down to 12.6 percent, a huge reduction from the previous 17 percent and many residents are report salary cut backs have been made not to mention large-scale power outages region-wide.
The autonomous region of Kurdistan is in turmoil and will not last if this course of action continues. Never before has widespread malcontent on this scale been seen across the board of political factions all at the same time. Without an elected official fit to lead the autonomous Kurdish government, Kurdistan with be eaten alive by anarchy and political upheaval if someone doesn’t step in and stabilize the region; a call that the Iraqi government or nations of the world have yet to heed.