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Students torch PUK building as protests flare up in Iraqi Kurdistan

STUDENTS in Slemani, Iraqi Kurdistan, set fire to the headquarters of the local ruling party today over the long-term suspension of monthly study stipends.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party’s building was set alight after authorities threatened to open fire on peaceful protesters.

Thousands marched on Salim Street, Slemani’s main thoroughfare, to demand that the region reinstates a study allowance that was cut under austerity measures introduced in 2014.

Police used force on the protesters and security forces deployed tear gas in a bid to disperse the crowds.

“This is why we are going to Belarus,” one protester shouted, referencing the ongoing refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, as protests spread to the settlements of Halabja, Ranya, Kalar and the Kurdistan Democratic Party-controlled capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil.

In the city of Koya, student accommodation administrators warned against involvement in the protests, warning that local PUK security forces would shoot at those involved. Participants in the demonstrations were also threatened with eviction.

The protests are the latest flare-up in Iraqi Kurdistan. Anger came last December over a lack of employment and a failure to pay public-sector salaries for months on end, with protests seeing at least 13 people, including children, shot dead.

Dissent is not tolerated in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is dominated by two families: the Barzanis, who run the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the Talabanis, who control the PUK.

Government critics are often jailed and tortured, or even killed.

Recently, 81 activists and journalists started a hunger strike in protest against their imprisonment on trumped-up charges, following what human rights groups dismissed as “sham trials.”

One student told the Morning Star that they were angry over a lack of prospects for young people and a “corrupt” and broken political system.

“We will continue to protest, but nothing will change while Barzani is still there. He is a dictator and only interested in power and money,” he said. 

“We all want to leave Kurdistan. There are no jobs, no electricity, no future.”

The Kurdistan Communist Party-Iraq said it supported the demands of the students and condemned the violent response of the authorities.

It called for urgent investigations of the security forces and demanded the immediate release of all those taken into custody.

Peaceful protests must be allowed to continue without threats, the communists said, blaming the region’s deepening financial and economic crisis for the eruption of anger.

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