BAGHDAD – At least two protesters were killed Thursday when soldiers opened fire on stone-throwing demonstrators in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah as the unrest triggered by turmoil elsewhere in the Middle East reached the normally placid enclave of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
Forty-three people were injured when the Kurdish pesh merga fighters fired live ammunition at youths throwing stones at the headquarters of the region’s dominant political party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), witnesses said.
The shootings brought to five the number of deaths in two days of violent protests in Iraq, where long-standing grievances about inadequate services, unemployment and corruption have erupted on the streets, inspired at least in part by the successes of the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt.
Also Thursday, the premises of a local council were burned by a mob near the southern city of Nasiriyah, and there were demonstrations in the oil-rich cities of Basra in the south and Kirkuk in the north.
Protesters also took to the streets for a second day in Kut, about 60 miles southeast of Baghdad, where three people were shot dead by police Wednesday during protests targeting the headquarters of the provincial governor.
The violence in Sulaymaniyah came shortly after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he had instructed the Iraqi security forces to act with restraint.
“It is prohibited for the security forces to use any kind of force against even one of the demonstrations,” he told journalists. He also urged demonstrators not to set fire to buildings and to secure permission for their protests.
Maliki sought to portray himself as a supporter of the demonstrators and described their demands as “legitimate.”
“We are especially happy when people take to the streets and talk, discuss and argue,” he said, contrasting his government with that of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. “Abusing me is better than their silence.”
But it is clear that the unrest has rattled his newly formed government, which includes all the major political factions that competed in the March elections. Maliki has rushed to offer concessions to aggrieved Iraqis, including legislation slashing politicians’ salaries and a promise not to seek a third term.
The unrest in Sulaymaniyah, however, was a bigger threat to the stability of the quasi-autonomous Kurdish region, which has long promoted itself as an oasis of tranquillity in an otherwise violent Iraq. Foreign investors have flocked there, and the economy is booming.
But the new prosperity has not been evenly distributed, and many Kurds resent the apparent accumulation of wealth by members of the KDP, headed by the region’s president, Massoud Barzani.
The shootings immediately exacerbated tensions between the KDP and a new opposition movement called Change, which originated in Sulaymaniyah. In the regional capital, Irbil, and at least two other KDP strongholds, mobs attacked and burned Change offices.
The Sulaymaniyah demonstration was organized by independent activists and initially was peaceful. But after most of the protesters dispersed, a smaller, breakaway group marched to the KDP headquarters and began throwing stones, witnesses said.
Farhad Omar, head of the emergency department at Sulaymaniyah Hospital, confirmed that two bodies had been brought to the emergency room and that 43 people were hospitalized with gunshot wounds, six of them in critical condition.
Two hours later, a car bomb killed 13 people and injured more than 50 in the Muqdadiyah area of Diyala province, according to police spokesman Lt. Col. Ghaleb Attiyah. The attack illustrated the potential for the growing unrest to become entangled in the insurgency that still kills Iraqis daily.