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Kurds Stage More Protests Over Public Services

Officials in Kurdish city accept that they have failed to deliver adequate services but say they just don’t have the resources.
By Rebaz Mahmood

At least 500 demonstrators gathered in Sulaimaniyah’s Freedom Park to demand better public services on September 17, just over a week after similar protests in the Kurdish town of Kalar turned violent.

Demonstrators submitted a petition to the authorities asking for improvements to water, electricity, and fuel supplies and an immediate solution to the current housing shortage and transport problems. They also asked the government to combat corruption and to respect freedom of speech and assembly.

"After 15 years of self-rule, the services basic to life are still inadequate,” said Ali Mawlood, one of the protest organisers who is a member of the Board Defending the Rights of Sulaimaniyah Citizens. “With the overthrow of the Baath regime, we’d expected to get better living conditions, but it has not happened.”

Several officials who came to the demonstration to respond to the complaints acknowledged their failings and said they were doing as much as they could with limited resources.

“We support such gatherings,” said Adil Ali, director of the interior ministry’s media office. "They are exercising their freedom, and it is their right to ask for services. Such actions are certainly a wake-up call to the government to eradicate the problems."

On September 7, a demonstration against inadequate water and electricity provision in Kalar, a town southeast of Sulaimaniyah, turned violent after the mayor refused to meet protesters. At least 30 people were injured in clashes with police, and demonstrators set fire to several government offices.

Earlier this month, residents of Rania, northwest of Sulaimaniyah, also took to the streets to demand better public services. The Kurdish government has promised to work harder to improve services in both areas.

Public demonstrations are a new phenomenon in Kurdistan.

The three northern Iraqi provinces, which have formed a semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan since 1991, have been relatively safe compared with the rest of Iraq. But residents still face the water and power shortages and the poor public services suffered by the rest of Iraqi.

“Our region relied on its own revenues before Operation Iraqi Freedom,” said university student Chra Kamaran, addressing the crowd at the latest protest in Sulaimaniyah. “The administration now receives a lot of money over and above those revenues. But the money is not being spent fairly to meet the people’s demands."

The peaceful demonstration stood in marked contrast to the riots seen in Kalar, and officials including the Sulaimaniyah’s deputy mayor and the heads of the water, electricity and sewage departments showed a more conciliatory approach by turning out to talk to the crowd.

Aso Kamal, a member of the Board Defending the Rights of the Sulaimaniyah Citizens, said the group has the support of the people and would only use civil means in its protests.

Mohammad Qaradaghi, secretary of the Kurdish government in Sulaimaniyah, said the government was doing its best. “It is the citizens' right to ask for services,” he said. “We have done whatever we can, and even more."

Qaradaghi said it was unfair to expect the government to fix everything overnight, “We have the classic small administration. We’ve tried a lot but we have been unable to cope with the population explosion. Our capacity is limited."

However, he added, “We are poor on administration but on the other hand we are very successful at ensuring security and peace, providing food and guaranteeing freedom. So I am satisfied with the government's performance."

Qaradaghi accepted that corruption did exist in government – another concern raised by the protesters – and noted that large numbers of civil servants collect their salary without coming to work.

He said the administration was now revising its appointment policy so that jobs would be assigned on the basis of experience and competence, not patronage, "At the beginning, the government was formed on the basis of political background. Possessing competence and experience was not the standard by which to assess people for government posts. But now we are working on that."

Sirwan Arif, head of the electricity board for the Kurdish region, offered some excuses for another of the protesters’ complaint – the shortage of power.

“The previous Iraqi government did not let the Kurdish government import the equipment needed to maintain the power network,” said Arif, noting that after Saddam Hussein was overthrown, “we waited more than a year for the Americans to do something for us, but they didn’t. And now, with the rapid population increase, the government is unable to deal with the situation".

Arif said he has approached foreign companies about improving the electricity supply and buying generators and has spoken with neighboring countries about buying electricity.

Finally, Sulaimaniyah’s deputy mayor Abdullah Ali defended another practice that demonstrators objected to - the distribution of land that is not hooked up to water and electricity services, to accommodate a rapidly-growing population.

“We had decided to distribute plots of land to reduce the housing problem,” he said. “It’s true that they don’t have utilities, but it was better to distribute them anyway."

In the crowd, protester Salar Abdul-Rahman listened to the list of explanations but remained unmoved.

“It’s a sin to call these officials peshmerga,” he said, referring to the prestigious Kurdish guerrilla force in which many officials used to serve. “They are just selfish people and their sole concern is to get rich.

“If things go on like this, the day will come when we oust them like we did the Baathists."

Rebaz Mahmood is an IWPR trainee in Iraq.

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