Protests threaten Iraq's coalition government

04 April 2011

A 100-day ultimatum and protests in Kurdistan threaten political stability

Protests in Iraq, which have continued for more than 50 consecutive days, are threatening to tear apart the country’s fragile political stability.

Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets in demonstrations since 25 February calling for an end to corruption, access to clean water and electricity, and better services.

While protests in Baghdad have died down, they continue to intensify in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyeh, threatening the makeup of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

For more 50 days protesters have been convening in the city’s main square, although calls for demonstrations in other cities have failed to ignite support.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded to the demonstrations in late-February by imposing a 100-day deadline for his ministers to improve operations or face dismissal.

Now half way through that period and little sign of the protests stopping, ministers are hoping for an extension to the deadline, saying the timeline is unrealistic.

“Apart from statements and talks of reform, little has been achieved. The people have yet to feel any change. There is an intention for reform, but it has not been put into practice,” says Kamran Karadaghi, former chief of staff to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Minister of Construction and Housing Saheb al-Daraji has also said the 100 days are insufficient. The ministry will continue to build houses for the poor, he said. Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq has said Al-Maliki should resign if no improvements are made when the 100 days are over.

The Ministerial Council, or cabinet, also announced on 27 March a 60-day deadline for ministries to submit names of incompetent general directors in order to replace them.

As Al-Maliki’s government comes under increasing political pressure from the protests, the security situation in the country has deteriorated, with more than five explosions in Iraq since the beginning of April.

In a quarterly review published 31 March, United Nations Secertary-General Ban Ki-Moon warns the Iraqi government that it is not immune to the wave of civil unrest in the region. “The demonstrations that took place across Iraq and the violence that ensued, underscore the urgent need to address the poor state of public services, high unemployment and the perceived failure to tackle corruption.”  He adds that the government should respond with “quick and concerted action to address these concerns”.

The KRG argues that demonstrations are being fuelled by opposition parties, namely Gorran, which enjoys a stronghold in Suleimaniyeh and has 25 seats in the Kurdish Parliament. Gorran says the demonstrators are Kurds fed up with the current political leaders.

“It is difficult to gauge why exactly the people are demonstrating. Whoever you ask gives a different story, there is no unifying stance, everyone has their own personal frustrations,” says a KRG employee.

KRG President Masoud Barzani announced a major reshuffle of the cabinet. He also unveiled a reform programme, including measures to end preferential treatment when applying for government jobs, increasing transparency in project tendering, curbing monopoly by large businesses and prohibiting subcontracting of government projects.

But the KRG is losing patience with the protesters. In a meeting with the Council of Ministers on the same day, Barzani called for a distinction between genuine grievances and the politicisation of the protests by opposition parties.

“There is a sense of struggle now. With every consensus from the KRG, the opposition parties will raise the bar and demand more, but it is unlikely that the government will resign,” says Karadaghi.

How the KRG responds will have implications for the rest of Iraq. Already old political rivalries between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are beginning to surface with disagreements on how best to deal with Gorran. A disunited Kurdistan will cause problems for Al-Maliki if he is to maintain their support.

Barzani is unlikely to resign. “The protesters are still determined. They have continued to turn up in the face of threats, assault, violent scuffles with security forces, shootings and deaths,” says Shkow Sherif, a lecturer at the University of Suleiymaniyeh.

Whether the momentum will spread to the rest of the country is uncertain, but Iraq is facing the similar problems affecting the rest of the region. With a $82bn state budget and the world’s second largest oil reserves, its people are likely to become more frustrated unless the pace of change increases.

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