At least seven people have been killed in ongoing violent protests since Sunday in northern Iraq, where government workers are demanding their salaries be paid as Covid-19 plunges the country into economic turmoil.
Six protesters were killed after local security forces opened fire to disperse crowds in various parts of Sulaymaniyah province. A security officer also died of his injuries after clashing with protestors. At least 12 other people were wounded.
Hundreds of protesters demonstrated in the city of Sulaymaniyah and nearby towns, saying they have not received their monthly pay checks since October. More than 1.25 million people are employed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
In recent days, protesters have also set fire to government buildings and political parties’ headquarters. Security forces have used live bullets and tear gas to disperse the demonstrations, witnesses and health officials told CNN on condition of anonymity.
The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq condemned “acts of violence” in the province, saying in a statement on Monday that “the right to peaceful protest must be protected and it is imperative that demonstrations remain peaceful.”
Iraqi President Barham Salih said authorities were watching the situation in the province with “deep concern,” in a statement urging local officials to listen to protestors’ demands. “Solving these problems with violence is a huge error,” he said.
“We need fast and radical solutions to resolve these issues around the payment of salaries and the conditions in which people are living. This includes taking swift and serious steps, based on transparency and better use of the country’s resources, to serve the Iraqi people, as well as the undertaking of genuine reforms.”
Salih also called on the regional government to “work toward a comprehensive agreement with Iraq’s Federal Government, around salaries and other financial payments, so that we can all ensure that Iraq’s citizens can live freely and with dignity.”
There is a long-standing dispute between the KRG and the federal government of Iraq over oil and gas shares and distribution. The pandemic has only amplified the crisis.
The Prime Minister of KRG, Masrour Barzani, said in a statement released Monday that “the Kurdistan government is exerting all its efforts and capabilities to overcome the difficult financial situations that the region, Iraq and the world are going through.”
Barzani added that the region “continues negotiations with the federal government to obtain the rights and financial dues for the region that it has not sent so far, unfortunately, although the regional government has shown complete flexibility in order to reach an agreement within the framework of the constitution.”
The Covid-19 pandemic and dramatic drops in oil prices have seriously impacted Iraq’s economy, which depends on oil for 90% of its revenues. Local governments in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq have also struggling to pay their employees on time.
Protests have taken place across Iraq for more than a year, as the country has failed to achieve stability following decades of sanctions and war, suffering from unemployment, government corruption and poor service delivery, including electricity and clean water. Iraq is experiencing its worst economic recession since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Reporting contributed by CNN’s Muwafaq Mohammed in Erbil, Mohammed Tawfeeq in Atlanta and Aqeel Najim in Baghdad.