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Kurds Protest Energy Shortages

Kurdish officials blame central government for long fuel lines and power cuts, but the public holds local authorities responsible.
Iraqi Kurds have been taking to the streets in recent weeks to protest the shortage of fuel and electricity in the region.

Kurdish officials have promised to fix the shortages but blame the central government for not providing Iraqi Kurdistan with enough resources. The argument has not convinced residents in the northern region, however, who blame their local authorities for not providing basic services.

Drivers have to wait days to get their petrol shares, which range between 25 and 40 litres per week, and local authorities recently announced electricity cuts despite soaring temperatures.

It is not uncommon for drivers in northern Iraq to hang around in queues for several days before they are told that there is no fuel left at the station. On July 6, in the northeastern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, about 500 drivers who had waited for fuel for more than three days poured into the nearby streets, set tires on fire and blocked four main streets of the city.

The Kurdish government's new riot police unit, which was established this spring as anti-government demonstrations have grown throughout the region, dispersed the protesters. No demonstrators were arrested, but two people were slightly wounded and some cars were damaged in the protest.

Jamal Mohammad, a 41 year-old taxi driver, had spent four days in his car waiting for fuel. He said he has eight children and is totally dependant on his taxi business to provide for his family.

Mohammad was among the protesters shouting, "For how long will you [authorities] deceive us with your dishonest speeches." They expressed frustration that services are worsening, even though United Nations-imposed sanctions that devastated Iraq economically were lifted three years ago.

Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed semi autonomy from the central government since 1991 and relative calm from the violence that has engulfed the rest of Iraq since 2003. As a result, residents hold local authorities accountable for the lack of development.

"Stability is not enough," said Mohammad. "We need services."

Twenty litres of fuel sells for about 14 US dollars on the black market, while the average government employee's monthly salary is about 100 dollars. Fuel stations sell 20 litres of petrol for about four dollars but the queues often stretch for at least a kilometre.

Frustration with the Kurdish government rose again last week when local authorities announced they would cut power from 16 to nine hours per day as temperatures soared above 35 degrees Celsius. Officials blamed the central government for cutting the region's power share, but northern residents, citing corruption and lack of development in Iraqi Kurdistan, believe the authorities have enough autonomy to develop services in the region.

Protesters in Chwarqurnna, 110 kilometres north of Sulaimaniyah, took to the streets last week over the lack of electricity. Security forces arrested 15 demonstrators, who were charged with starting riots. Police quelled another demonstration over lack of resources in Sayid Sadq, 50 km east of Sulaimaniyah, two weeks ago.

The fuel lines are often longer in Sulaimaniyah province than they are in Baghdad and other provinces, but electricity is generally better. Few, if any, areas in Iraq have round-the-clock electricity, and those are usually border towns and regions that receive their power from neighbouring countries including Turkey and Iran. Iraqi electricity is generated entirely through stations run by fuel, which is in short supply.

This year, three oil wells have been drilled and three refineries built in Iraqi Kurdistan, and officials confirm that shortages will remain until the facilities start production in about two years. Iraq has some of the world's largest oil reserves, but corruption, the insurgency and lack of refineries force the government to spend billions of dollars every year importing petrol.

Dlawar Nuri, deputy of Iraqi Kurdistan's private projects commission, said the region needs four million litres of fuels every day and that it now receives less than one million litres from the central government.

"The authorities in Baghdad make us many promises, but they don't do anything," he said

The region has two electricity-producing dams that generate 500 megawatts daily for the three northern provinces, which is home to four million Iraqis. The Iraqi government was providing 200 megawatts for the region but cut by half last week, said local officials.

Hersh Muharram, the head of general commission for electricity in Sulaimaniyah, said Sulaimaniyah province alone has less than 300 megawatts of power and requires almost twice that per day.

But Kurds, who witness a widening gap between rich and poor as well as rising inflation and widespread corruption among local officials, say they don’t believe the Kurdish authorities are honest about the cause of the problems.

Soran Mohammad, a 27 year-old who participated in the demonstration in Chwarqurnna, said they often have to forgo even the simplest pleasures - such as watching the World Cup - because of the lack of power.

"In the heat of summer they cut our power, but they [officials] have it for 24 hours," he said. "The youth are very angry at the government."

Amanj Khalil is an IWPR contributor in Sulaimaniyah.

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