A deadly attack on Iraqi protesters prompted Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Nechirvan Barzani to reiterate his condemnation of the use of violence against demonstrators, despite a history of Kurdish authorities using the same tactics locally.
Followers of populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, known as Sadrists or Blue Hats, opened fire Feb. 5 on a protesters' camp in the southern city of Najaf, killing at least eight people and wounding at least 20 more. But medical personnel and humanitarians pegged the losses much higher: 23 dead and 197 wounded, some severely.
“We condemn the repeated use of violence against demonstrators in Iraq," Barzani said in a Feb. 7 statement. "Peaceful demonstrations are a lawful, constitutional right, while killing demonstrators and using force in order to frighten and scatter protesters is an outright crime.”
Barzani had issued a similar statement in early December, calling violence against citizen protesters "a wanton crime" and stating that the "criminals, regardless of their affiliation, must be identified by relevant Iraqi authorities and face justice."
Barzani has also called for Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, Iraq’s prime minister-designate in Baghdad, to form a new Cabinet quickly, which some observers hope will help calm protesters. Allawi said he expects to complete his Cabinet by late February. He is trying hard to avoid the fate of his predecessor, Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq’s current caretaker premier. Abdul Mahdi agreed to resign in the face of the mass protests that have swept the country.
The Independent High Commission for Human Rights in Iraq recently estimated more than 500 people have been killed and more than 23,500 wounded, mainly by Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, since the protests began Oct. 1.
The protesters are demonstrating for many reasons: the presence of US troops in their country, poor public services and Iranian influence on Iraq's government, which they consider corrupt. Some are protesting the nomination of Allawi, a Shiite, which they believe was engineered by Iran.
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as well as some non-Kurdish Sunni groups, are insisting that Allawi accept their nominations. But a group of Kurdish lawmakers in the Iraqi parliament known as Group15 (G15) oppose the views of KDP and PUK lawmakers in Baghdad. The group met Feb. 9 with Allawi.
Ahmed Haji Rashid, a lawmaker in the Iraqi parliament from the Islamic Group of Kurdistan (IGK) and a G15 member, told Al-Monitor, “Allawi told us that most of the Shiite groups are in agreement with his views of a government of independent capabilities; the Kurds and [other] Sunnis should also accept independent ministers.”
He said, “Allawi said he has met with the Sunnis and clarified his pathway of not accepting partisan agendas; however, they [Sunnis] reject independent ministers." Rashid added, “He promised to keep the balance among Iraq’s [ethnic] components regarding his Cabinet members. We (the G15) told Alawi that if his government would be independent and preserve a balance among Iraq’s components, as the constitution requires, we would support his Cabinet.”
The G15 stressed that unless Allawi exclusively keeps arms and public monies in the hands of the state, no one can expect free and fair elections in the country. Rashid said the group urged Allawi to settle the issue of disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil (the Kurdish seat of government) and adopt an oil-for-budget agreement previously signed between Abdul Mahdi’s government and the KRG.
The KRG announced Feb. 8 that Allawi would visit Iraqi Kurdistan within the next two weeks.
KRG spokesman Jotiar Adil told Al-Monitor, “We are against the use of violence and have said it clearly in our statements that the Iraqi government must be patient and deal with the protesters peacefully.”
He added, “As the [KRG], we have spoken with the Iraqi [federal] government — not any specific Shiite political party — because … the government is our main audience on any subject.”
Regarding preconditions for Allawi’s anticipated Cabinet, Adil said the KRG supports any process that takes place within the law. The KRG, he added, has made it clear from the start that the Iraqi government should always abide by the set rules and that whoever takes office in Iraq must abide by the constitution, honor agreements signed with the KRG, and work for all of Iraq’s different communities.
As for the protests, Barzani's stance against Baghdad's use of deadly force stands in stark contrast to the Kurdish government's past use of lethal force to suppress peaceful Kurdish protesters.
In solidarity with the Arab Spring, demonstrators took to the streets of Sulaimaniyah in February 2011 calling for reforms and better public services. The KRG and ruling parties’ security forces responded with live bullets, killing 10 protesters and wounding hundreds. Salih was then the KRG prime minister and later resigned under public pressure. Also, in late 2017 during several anti-government protests in Sulaimaniyah, at least five demonstrators were killed by KRG forces.
Othman Sidiq, a volunteer lawyer for the cases of those who were killed during the 2011 protests, told Al-Monitor, “After nearly nine years, unfortunately, no one has been arrested or sentenced. Besides, the perpetrators are free and most of the cases were closed under illegal pretexts and through political pressures from the ruling parties.” He added, “The reason behind that is the judicial authority in the Kurdistan Region has yet to refuse decisions imposed by the political parties."
Adil denied that claim and said, “In the Kurdistan Region, we respect and adhere to international human rights principles as well as protesters' rights, and the KRG has taken no illegal action against any protesters.”
Zikri Zebari, a KRG parliament member representing the PUK and a member of the Human Rights Committee, told Al-Monitor, “We have some criticism of the KRG in terms of abusing human rights, but overall the situation here is better than Iraq [in general].” He went on to say, “Our committee has made follow-ups for the  cases, and offenders — whatever their political positions are — should be brought to justice.”
Kamal Chomani, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute, told Al-Monitor, “There are several reasons behind [the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI)] condemning the violence used by the [federal] Iraqi forces and militias against the protesters. First, the KRI is under pressure from the United States to back the protests and show support for anti-Iran blocs in Iraq.” He added, “Second, the KRI is in line with the marja’iyas' (Shiite religious authorities') condemnation."
However, Chomani said, “The KRI condemnation, especially by [KDP leader and former KRG President] Massoud Barzani, [KRG Prime Minister] Masrour Barzani and Nechirvan Barzani, came as a surprise for many in the KRI, as the KDP, KRG and PUK have been so brutal in dispersing the protests in the Kurdistan Region … to the extent they have silenced almost all kinds of protest movements in the KRI. This hypocrisy of the KRI leaders has made politics so cheap, and this hypocrisy is a reason the entire KRI suffers from an existential crisis today.”
Kurdish leaders eventually might support Allawi’s Cabinet since they have no better options, and if Allawi fails to present his Cabinet in time, Iraq’s political scene has yet to see the worst.