For the fourth consecutive day, university students in Iraq’s self-ruled northern Kurdish region were out in the streets on Wednesday to protest over a lack of financial support from the local government.
The demonstrations started in Sulaymaniyah, one of three provinces that make up the region, and spread to other areas, the latest disorder in a growing wave of public anger against perceived corruption, nepotism and austerity measures.
Students are demanding that authorities reinstate a monthly grant that was suspended in 2014 due to widespread austerity measures after an oil price crash and the fight against ISIS, the terrorist group which, at the time, had overrun nearly one third of Iraq.
Students living at home were then entitled to a monthly payment of 60,000 Iraqi dinars ($41), while others who lived in dormitories were paid 100,000 dinars.
Hasti Salah, a student at the University of Sulaimaniyah, told The National that with the recent increase in oil prices in the international market and the victory against ISIS, the government has no excuse to withhold the payment given the improved situation.
“The situation was rough in the past few years but it is better now,” Ms Salah, 19, said as she took part in a protest on the university campus.
“There is a lot of corruption by both Iraq and Kurdistan governments."
For students like her, the stipend was crucial to covering living costs.
“As a student living in a dormitory, I spend $100-$150 each month so $60 means a lot for us,” the medical student told The National.
On Tuesday, protests turned violent when security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters throwing stones.
Main streets were closed as angry demonstrators attacked the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of two main Kurdish parties. Sulaymaniyah is under the control of PUK.
Footage on social media showed PUK-affiliated security forces beating the protesters with batons and making arrests. In one video, a group of security forces surrounded one demonstrator who fell to the ground while a man in civilian clothing kicked him in the face.
For years, the Kurdish area has faced a budget crunch due to its continuing dispute with the federal government over the right to develop and export oil resources, prompting Baghdad to withhold the region’s share of the national budget on several occasions.
Like Baghdad, the Kurdistan Regional Government has overspent on public sector salaries by hiring too many staff, which has cut vital spending on services, including education.
The KRG's largest revenue stream comes from its independent oil exports of more than 400,000 barrels per day, which have garnered an average of $737 million a month this year, as estimated by the Iraq Oil Report website, which monitors the industry in Iraq based on export volumes and pricing data.
Under the latest arrangement, the federal government has been transferring about $138m a month on a nearly monthly basis since July. The fourth and most recent payment was received in November, according to Iraq Oil Report, citing the region’s Ministry of Finance.
Besides economic challenges, the region is also facing political disputes, mainly within the PUK.
A row has been simmering for months between Lahur Talabani and his cousin Bafel Talabani, with whom he shares the PUK presidency. Bafel expelled Lahur, along with a number of party members, in August.