Iraq is the country holding the world's second largest proven oil resources. The city of Halabja is the capital of the Halabja Governorate, located around 240 km north-east from Baghdad. It is located only around 13 to 16 km from the Iranian border and is part of Iraqi Kurdistan .
The Halabja block is supposed to contain around 90 million tons of oil resources, explorations are operated by the Russian company Gazprom Neft. In 2013, the company signed a production sharing agreement (PSA) with the government, obtaining an 80% stake of the Halabja block project. The company was developing a geological exploration program and started conducting geological surveys of the block in 2014. Its plans were to begin drilling the block's first exploration between 2015 and 2016.
The Russian oil company was finally forced to halt their operations in the Halabja block when demonstrations emerged in October 2014. Local protesters demanded that all oil companies leave the region and asked their Kurdish government to drop its initiatives for independent oil exports. Local farmers, professionals and environmentalists asked the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to focus on economic sectors such as tourism and agriculture over oil. They issued a statement justifying their protests and explaining that “scientific evidence shows work conducted by this company is lethal and damages the environment, air, water wells and springs - and such changes are irreversible”. In September 2014, Gazprom Neft had already been forced to stop its operations when up to 50 of their Kurdish employees went on strike for three hours. The same day, the company had agreed to reduce working hours from 12 to 8 hours per day and provide health insurance.
The leader of the 2014 protest movement against the exploration of the Halabja block, Kamaran Ali, is wanted by the police for allegedly bringing Gazprom Neft to a halt at gunpoint together with his brother and a third person. They have been denying allegations and continue to lead and support the protest movement. At the October 2014 protest, around 200 people showed up, many of them dressed in traditional Kurdish attire. Ali stated that they had collected up to 2,000 signatures to make Gazprom Neft leave the exploration area. Effects of the exploration were already felt by young protesters who said that it had already affected the water level and the springs in same villages. It was unclear if protesters were also demanding employment and land compensation, as contradicting statements were made.
Protesters finally agreed on setting a 20 October deadline for the company to leave the Halabja block.
The outcome of the protest after the set deadline is unclear. It seems like operations are set to continue, according to information provided by Gazprom Neft.