There’s Something Rotten in Kurdistan… - 04.14.2006

The content here at Alive in Baghdad has, understandably, focused primarily on the goings on in Baghdad; and particularly the issues related to Iraq as a state more generally. Today I feel the issues at hand make it reasonable to spend some time shedding some light on the other side of Kurdistan. Although Kurdistan has been repeatedly held up as a paragon of interventionism and a beacon of democracy in an otherwise muddled quagmire of Iraqi political infighting.

Unfortunately there’s a bit of a dark underside to Kurdish politics infrequently alluded to in the press. I’ve already mentioned the issue of a Kurdish-Austrian journalist who was nearly imprisoned for reporting on the appearance of corruption by Kurdistan’s regional leader, Masoud Barzani.

To make things more complicated, the anniversary of the massacre at Halabja passed just under a month ago-on March 16th. To mark the anniversary Kurdish politicians prepared a memorial gala, angering many Kurdish citizens who saw the events as more evidence of corruption in their local government.

Here are some of the highlights of this event:

HALABJA, Iraq, March 16 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Kurdish protesters destroyed a memorial to the 1988 gas attack in the Iraqi town of Halabja on Thursday, setting the museum ablaze on the 18th anniversary of the deaths of 5,000 local people.

A hospital official said one man was shot dead when a gathering to commemorate the attack turned into a protest over poor local services.

Kurds destroy Halabja memorial in protest

Kurdish security forces shot dead one man and wounded at least eight others when they opened fire on protestors on the 18th anniversary of what became the most notorious atrocity of Saddam Hussein. “The Kurdish government exploited Halabja to draw attention to the plight of the Kurds and get donations that have never reached us,” said one angry protestor.

Hundreds protest as Kurds remember Halabja gas attack

“We’ve had enough of these liars and we don’t want to see them in our town,” said Rizin Walid, a university student.

Most of the demonstrators were students from universities around the Kurdish region home for vacation and they expressed widespread anger over the lack of services and reconstruction in the impoverished town.

After blocking the roads into town with large rocks and burning tires, the mob converged on the memorial to the tragedy where a number of local officials were speaking and clashed with security guards who opened fire on the crowd, killing 14-year-old Kurda Ahmed and wounding six.

The site was eventually overrun by the mob and the museum and meeting hall of the memorial were set on fire.

Iraqi Kurd killed in riot on Halabja anniversary

Given those events, its difficult to understand how the press has gotten their coverage of Kurdistan previously so wrong. Difficult except for the fact that no one is covering Kurdistan. Kurdistan has repeatedly been covered from an embedded reporter military viewpoint, and considered uninteresting from any other angle. The foreign press continues to set up its bureaus in Baghdad and report continuously on the numbers of wounded and killed by various explosive devices, while failing to get at the root issues of unrest and disenchantment with nearly all of Iraq’s new political elite.

Coming on the tail of the reporter scandal, we’re now hearing that protesters involved in the riots at the Halabja museum may face the death penalty!

The frustration of Kurds with their leaders was exemplified in a piece in Kurdish Media. Kurdish Media is a UK based organization which is an “independent information provider, not affiliated to any political or non-political organisation. Its vision is to become a one-stop-shop information provider on Kurds and Kurdistan.”

Here are some highlights from Dr. Kamal Mirawdeli’s piece, “Moral Contract:”

Elections are before anything else moral contracts between the voters and people elected by them. This moral contract is based on trust and proved by action. But is this the way the so-called Kurdish leaders understand elections? If trust is proved by action then the actions of these leaders have proved that they treated the trust of our people with indifference, insult and contempt. And for this they deserve nothing but the contempt of our people.

Kurdish society is hollowed from its every soul. It is enough to understand this just by looking at what happened in Halabja, by considering the monstrous growth of Shekh Zana, by seeing what happens every day to the families of the martyrs of anfal, and by thinking of the fact that every day at least two women are either killed or committing suicide and at least ten people are killed just as a result of car crashes and road accidents.

Yet, in spite of all this, again and again our people have generously given them opportunities to re-humanise themselves, to redeem themselves from their sins, to ask forgiveness for their crimes and to do something honourable that makes our people proud of it and of them and when they die they have some honour left in them.

We have waited and waited and waited and this did not happen.

Moral Contract

Regarding the possibilities of the death penalty’s usage for protesters at the Halabja memorial:

Demonstrators who last week torched a monument to the victims of a gas attack on Halabja could face the death penalty if convicted, according to a judge investigating the incident.

Investigative judge Karwan Wrya Ali said that under a Baathist-era law adopted by the Iraqi Kurdistan government, the punishment for destroying government property is life in prison or death by hanging. “Anyone convicted of setting the monument on fire will be executed,” he said.

He also said that demonstrators would be held responsible for the death of a 17-year-old boy, Kurda Ahmed, who, witnesses reported, was shot by security forces during the protest.

So far, Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan regional president Masood Barzani have declined to comment on last week’s incident.

Organisers claim the demonstration was a people’s movement that drew residents of all political affiliations - including members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the party that dominates Sulaimaniyah’s government.

Halabja has been eerily quiet as Kurdish authorities chase down suspects and raid houses. A four-year-old boy, Mohammed Karim, was shot last week as security forces pursued and fired at a 53-year-old man. Both are being treated in a Sulaimaniyah hospital.

A security source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities have arrested about 80 people. Kurdish regional government spokesman Jamal Abdullah said 40 to 45 remain in custody, suspected of setting the monument on fire and inciting violence. Local human rights groups have not been allowed to see the detainees.

At least seven journalists were beaten during the demonstration and others had their cameras and recorders seized. The authorities have demanded that local reporters cooperate with the investigation by turning over any footage, photos and notes taken at the protest. The Kurdistan Journalists’ Syndicate, widely seen as an arm of the government, is supporting that demand.

Halabja Protesters May Face Death Penalty

It’s really incredible to consider that not only is the Kurdish regional government apparently continuing to repress journalists in its region, but it may also resort to a Ba’athist era law enabling the use of the death penalty against demonstrators who did not directly cause harm to any person! Jalal Talabani’s refusal to comment on the incident immediately laso demonstrates a new level of cyncism in Iraqi politics. Although Talabani would condemn the idea of executing Saddam, he did not immediately do the same for the use of the death penalty on his own people!

And another piece suggesting that the memorial protest was not an isolated incident:

Observers say, however, the recent protests and the government’s violent response are not isolated incidents. A March 8 protest in the town of Koya, in which students demonstrated over not being paid their stipend for the past three months, was also attacked by police.

“The youth discontent has been going on for a while,” says Tiare Rath, international editor of IWPR’s Iraq Crisis Report, adding that the protests partly reflect Kurdistan’s success in schooling young people in freedom, democracy, and human rights.

“It’s a generational thing,” she says. “Young people here have grown up under independence. But no one here understands why there is no reconstruction up here in Kurdistan as the security situation is good. And we don’t get any answers because there is no transparency.”

Kurds’ quest for justice overshadowed by economic discontent

Lastly, in a bizarre turn of events, there was this report, detailing the arrest, apparently, of Kurdish sympathizers or supporters of a Kurdish rebel group which operates in Turkey and has been branded a terrorist organization, the PKK:

The KDP sympathizers held demonstrations in Suleymaniye, which is under the control of Jalal Talabani’s Iraq Kurdistan Patriots Union (PUK).

Police intervened in the demonstrations protesting the recent happenings in Turkey.

The Order Directory of Suleymaniye informed the demonstrators were taken custody as the demonstration was illegal. KPD supporters; however, had asked for permission two days ago, but their demand was turned down, according to an anonymous police official.

PKK Supporters Taken into Custody in Suleymaniye

Although perhaps the Kurdish government has decided its best served by dealing with “terrorist organizations” operating in their territory, this feels simultaneously a great deal like actions motivated by a far more domestic political unrest.

If you are interested to see a wider face of Kurdistan, please keep an eye on Kurdish Media, which appears to be a fairly wide ranging news aggregator for issues facing the Kurdish region of Iraq.

As I prepare for my return to the Middle East at the end of the month, these issues are guiding me more and more towards considering travel to the Kurdish region, rather than remaining in Amman or risking the dangers of Baghdad.

Expect to see more details about my upcoming return trip here in teh next few days, and please, if you feel the insight here is providing a truly valuable resource on the goings on in Iraq, consider hitting the red donate button and helping support this project.

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