It was Dilshad Beban’s last resort. Together with a number of his colleagues, Beban, a member of the Council of Teachers on Strike in Iraqi Kurdistan, decided to send a letter to the prime minister of the country, Haider al-Abadi.
“We had tried everything we could with the government of the Kurdish region but nothing helped,” Beban told NIQASH. “That is why we resorted to al-Abadi even though we know he is a politician too, and that he is using this issue of salaries to put pressure on the local authorities.”
We had no hope, we are like drowning people, clinging to any straw that might save our lives.
Problems with the salaries paid to civil servants and other employees in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan began in late 2014. This was when the federal government stopped transferring the Kurdish share of the national budget up north, due to conflict over oil revenues, which make up most of the federal budget. In 2016, the Iraqi Kurdish government, running out of cash, was forced to implement salary-saving measures, which basically meant withholding a part of wage payments, with a view to paying the rest back later. However the Kurdish government has not been able to pay anything back and now it appears it is unable even to pay a portion of wages. Since September salaries have not been paid.
After the tensions in mid-October, that resulted from the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence and that saw the Kurds lose much of the territory they had controlled, the Iraqi prime minister had said, more than once, that he was ready to pay the salaries of the Kurdish people.
And this was what spurred Beban to write to the Baghdad politician. “We had no hope, we are like drowning people, clinging to any straw that might save our lives,” he said.
The letter was sent in October and a reply came three weeks later. “We have heard the teachers’ voices and we will pay the salaries of employees in the very near future,” it said.
Al-Abadi himself has said that, after a list of names of employees is checked and audited, the Iraqi government will transfer salaries, but only if a number of other conditions are fulfilled – such as cancelling the results of the referendum on Kurdish independence and handing over control of border crossings, along with their revenues, to the central government.
As yet, no salaries have been paid.
At the beginning of the present political problems in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own parliament, military and legislation, some locals took heart at al-Abadi’s promises. They thought he might be able to rescue them from their own politicians, whom many believe to be corrupt and ineffective. However his failure to act upon his words at all, and the continuation of restrictive measures instituted in mid-October, has made them lose faith in the man, who has become a hero for many other Iraqis further south.
Local activist Hayman Mamand, who is based in Erbil, says that the ordinary people in Iraqi Kurdistan are simply being pressured by both sets of politicians.
“Kurdish citizens are victims of al-Abadi’s promises and of the failure of their own regional government,” he argued.
Local politicians would appear to agree.
“Al-Abadi has said that he considers Iraqi Kurdistan part of Iraq and the citizens living here as Iraqi citizens,” says Ahmed al-Haj Rashid, a senior Iraqi Kurdish politician who represents the Kurdish region's Islamic parties. “But there is a government in Kurdistan that does not want to take advantage of that initiative and it doesn’t appear willing to accept the Iraqi conditions.”
“Haider al-Abadi is simply practicing politics,” adds Amin Bakr, an MP for the oppositional Change movement, usually based in Baghdad. “He is using the budget as pressure and he also wants to make more political gains.”
Bakr says both sets of authorities are playing for time and that neither trusts the other. The existing Kurdish authorities won’t abandon their contracts with foreign oil companies while Baghdad wants public money to be used as public money and the Iraqi Kurdish military to be seen as part of the Iraqi armed forces. But neither of the political parties in charge here want that, Bakr argues. “Both want to control the money and the power,” he notes.
There have been several false starts to negotiations between the Kurdish and Iraqi federal authorities.
“In the end, history will describe Haider al-Abadi as a leader who broke his promises,” concludes Abdullah Rishawi, a local historian. “He has made too many of them to the Kurds, and to other Iraqis. He talks about rosy dreams but on the ground,” Rishawi complains, “nothing changes.”