Wednesday, May 25, 2011

How Iraq’s Kurdistan Broke Up Two Months Of Protests

While on a visit to Doha in the Persian Gulf, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Premier Barham Saleh gave an interview to a Qatari paper. He said that the protests that happened in Kurdistan were a sign of the power of the civil society in the region. He was quoted as saying, “We should not be afraid of the protests. We should not be afraid of our people when they demand reforms. On the contrary, it is a step forward for reforms.” What the prime minister failed to note in his talk with the foreign press was that the Kurdish security forces had violently broken up all the demonstrations in Kurdistan by that point, had harassed and attacked the media that were covering the events, and punished the opposition parties that came to align themselves with the protesters. Rather than being a sign of change in the region, the protests showed how committed the ruling parties were to keeping their tight hold on the reigns of power.
Early protest in Sulaymaniya, Feb. 2011
In mid-February 2011 Kurdistan saw their first protests. On February 17, people gathered in Sulaymaniya city’s Saray Square. The organizers got permission from the city council. During that opening day, there was a march to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters, one half of the ruling coalition in the KRG, where rocks were thrown at the building. Guards fired into the crowd in response to break them up. A 15-year old boy ended up dead, and fifty others were injured as a result. Other organizers planned demonstrations in the neighboring province of Irbil, but were stopped by the authorities that refused to give them permission. A few showed up anyway, and were violently broken up by the security forces. Agents spread throughout the city and quickly imposed a curfew to stave off any other assemblies. In retaliation, the Change List, the largest opposition group in Kurdistan had its offices attacked in the cities of Soran, Shawlawa, Dohuk, Dinaslawa, and Irbil, with the last one being set on fire, and one of their TV stations was banned. Change denied any connection with the marches, but condemned the violence used against them. Those initial events set the trend for the following months. People would occupy Saray Square everyday until late-April, there would be demonstrators in other cities that would be met violently by the security forces, the opposition would align themselves with the demonstrations, and any press that chose to cover the events would be harassed.
Protesters carrying away wounded comrade in Sulaymaniya, Feb. 17 (Alsumaria)
The following day, 2,000 university students tried to march in Sulaymaniya. The police would stop them from leaving campus. On February 19, protesters went to the KDP headquarters in the city once again to object to the shootings that took place on February 17. They were stopped by the security forces that fired into the crowd once again. 2 people would end up dying from their wounds, and 14 others were injured.
Police carrying away an injured protester in Sulaymaniya, Feb. 19 (Al Arabiya)
Protest in Halabja, Feb. 22
By the next week there were protests throughout Sulaymaniya province. On February 22 there was a march to the KDP headquarters in Halabja calling for new elections. The security forces met them, leading to another confrontation, and 20 injured. Two days later, people went to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headquarters, the other half of the ruling coalition, in Sulaymaniya City, threw rocks, and were shot at, leading to one guard being killed, and two protesters injured. February 25 was called the Day of Rage for demonstrations throughout the country, and there were events in Sulaymaniya, Chamchamal, Kalar, and Sayid Sadiq. In Chamchamal, 500 marched to the deputy mayor’s office and KDP headquarters, where they ran into guards who ended up killing one child, and leaving several others injured. The protesters in Sulaymaniya city ended up issuing 11 terms, and 26 demands, which included allowing them to attend meetings of the political parties, freedom at the universities, removing political parties from government administration, re-doing the Kurdish constitution, appointing neutral technocrats to the security ministries, bringing justice to the people who shot at protesters, and cutting the salaries of top officials and lawmakers, amongst others. The Change List, along with the other two opposition parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) and Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) quickly came to the side of the demonstrators, because they were pushing for many of the same issues, and also because it gave them a way to pressure the KDP and PUK. They issued their own 17-point reform program on February 26, which included new elections. They would eventually boycott the regional parliament, and call for the dissolution of the government.

These expressions of discontent caught the PUK and KDP completely off guard. Just the day before they started, the senior Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmoud Othman said that the demonstrations that were spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa could not happen in the KRG because it was a stable and democratic region. When they did, the ruling parties, slowly but surely responded with a carrot and stick approach.

First, the ruling parties launched verbal attacks upon the demonstrators and the opposition. They tried to discredit the protests by saying that Iran and foreign agents were leading the protests. They also tried to tar the Change List, by saying that they were cooperating with those outside powers. The Kurdistan Islamic Union also reported receiving threats
NRT TV offices after they were set afire for covering demonstrations
The PUK then went after the independent and opposition press that were covering the demonstrations. On February 17, NRT TV started broadcasting, and was the only station running stories about the initial protests. Three days later the station director received threatening phone calls, before 50-armed men broke in and set the building on fire. KRG Prime Minister Barham Saleh later claimed that 9 people were arrested for the attack, two of which were member of the anti-terror agency, but nothing has been said about whether they were punished or not since then. The independent newspaper Hawlati and Radio Nawa also received threats, and reporters were beaten and harassed while they were trying to cover the protests.

The authorities in Sulaymaniya also targeted the activists themselves. On February 26, anti-riot police tried to break up the demonstration at Saray Square using sound bombs and firing into the crowd. A stray bullet killed a protester. On February 27, an imam gave a speech at the square against corruption. He was picked up by four peshmerga from the PUK, beaten, and held for four days. He was arrested again at the end of March and detained for a week. There were other stories that protesters were being arrested and tortured by the Kurdish security forces. 

The KDP in Irbil were much more proactive and repressive from the beginning. In mid-February, the pro-KDP Kurdistan Students’ Union told all university students in Irbil that they had to go home or all the services at the schools would be shut down. This was a pre-emptive act to send away potential demonstrators before any of them became organized. On February 25, some activists tried to march to the central square in Irbil city, but were broken up by plainclothes security officers. 7 members of the Change List were arrested before the demonstration even started. Reporters for Radio Nawa had their equipment taken and were threatened with rape by the security forces, and cameraman had their equipment taken as well that day. A man working for a non-government organization was picked up and beaten for refusing to give up his cell phone in the square. The message was being sent that anyone who tried to protest, report on it, or who were even suspicious around an assembly would be threatened, harassed, and beaten if necessary in Irbil.
KRG Pres. Barzani promised reforms in March, which have not happened yet
Starting in March, the regional government began offering some carrots. In the middle of the month KRG Premier Saleh and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also the head of the PUK, both said that they supported the demands of the protesters, and that the authorities would work to meet them. On March 21, the head of the Sulaymaniya provincial council claimed that KRG President Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, would resign if reforms weren’t implemented. That same day Barzani told the regional parliament that he had a plan for early provincial elections, and that they needed to create an integrity committee to look into corruption, two of the major concerns of the demonstrators. By the end of the month, the President stated that he would pass a 7-point program that included both concessions and warnings to activists. The plan included the courts taking legal action against those that shot at demonstrators in Sulaymaniya in February, but also that anyone that led an assembly without a permit or who attacked government property would be prosecuted as well. So far, no changes have been made by the KRG, two months after these pronouncements.

What seemed more pressing was the increased use of force. On March 6, masked men attacked tents that demonstrators had set up in Saray Square, and lit them on fire. Dank Radio, an independent station in Kalar, Sulaymaniya, had its facility attacked by gunmen who stole their equipment. On March 11, the KDP held a rally to celebrate the 20th anniversary of liberation from Saddam Hussein in Irbil in order to block a planned protest that day. On April 2, people tried to march through part of Sulaymaniya city, but were met by riot police who used water cannons and live fire to disperse them. 44 police and 12 protesters were wounded in the ensuing clash.
Peshmerga after clash with protesters in Sulaymaniya, April 18
By mid-April the KRG was tired of the unrest, and moved to end it. Starting on April 17, there was another attempt to march through Sulaymaniya. They were met by police who tried to disperse them using tear gas and batons. 56 ended up being wounded. The next day, there was another clash in the city with 16 protesters being shot and wounded. There was also a protest in Irbil that was again broken up through force. 22 were wounded as a result, while journalists and even bystanders with cameras were attacked as well by plainclothes Asayesh. The chief of police later denied that anything had happened that day. On April 19, security forces moved in to clear people from Saray Square. First, people tried to march to the main court building to have a sit-in. The anti-riot police and peshmerga were there to meet them, and several arrests were made. The government then announced that all unlicensed demonstrations in the city were banned. They warned that anyone breaking the law would be arrested, and that all the protests in the city would be ended. As a result, all of the people at Saray Square in Sulaymaniya were cleared out, and their two-month stay was put to an end.

During the crackdown, the authorities also moved against the press and opposition. Reporters were chased away from central Sulaymaniya in an attempt to stop any coverage of the suppression of the protesters. The Kurdistan Islamic Group’s Payam TV station was surrounded by security forces, and then subsequently attacked. KNN TV had its transmission blocked. A spokesman for the demonstrators, a Kurdistan Islamic Union journalist and another member who was on the Sulaymaniya provincial council all had their cars blown up. Two of the KIU’s offices were also attacked. By the end of April, all three opposition parties said that the regional government had not delivered their monthly budgets. In Kurdistan all of the political parties are funded from the KRG’s budget.

By the end of April it was all over. There were no more protests in Kurdistan. Several people were left dead and several hundred were wounded in the previous two months. The opposition parties were still trying to push their demands, but there was no one in the streets to apply outside pressure on the government. Despite all the talk of reform, the PUK and KDP have not done a thing. In the end, that was all words, and the authorities showed their true colors when they went after not only the demonstrators in Irbil and Sulaymaniya, but also the media, and the Change List, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group. Despite all the talk of the KRG being the “other Iraq,” i.e. the more secure and supposedly democratic portion of the country, the ruling parties showed all of the authoritarian tendencies of other nations in the region. That’s because their foremost concern was holding onto power. For the last thirty years, they have used their family, tribal, and political connections, along with a little dose of repression to govern. Their tight hold over every aspect of Kurdish society eventually gave birth to opposition, which spilled over into the street. Not use to change or having to answer to others, the PUK and KDP responded by using the heavy hand. This gained very little coverage in the international press, and with the Americans more concerned about maintaining their friends in Iraq like the Kurds, there was no real foreign pressure on the KRG to not use force. It succeeded in suppressing the protests for now, but all the problems remain in the region. That leaves the government the choice to either finally share power with others or become more repressive in the future.


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Mohammed, Shwan, “Students demand Iraq Kurd apology for protest deaths,” Agence France Presse, 2/19/11

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Saifaddin, Dilshad, “Court staff go on strike to protest security forces’ arrest of demonstrators,” AK News, 4/19/11
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- “Sulaimaniya protest: 56 civilians and policemen wounded,” AK News, 4/2/11
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Subhan, Kamaran, “Sulaimaniya protests to declare strike if not responded within 48 hours,” AK News, 3/1/11

Tawfeeq, Mohammed, “Kurdish unrest continues in Iraq,” CNN, 3/6/11
- “Teenager dies, 39 hurt in fresh clashes in Iraq’s Kurdistan,” CNN, 2/21/11

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