AINA Editorial
Iraqi Kurdistan: Not So Democratic
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

(AINA) -- The emergence of an almost completely autonomous Kurdistan in the Iraq's north has often been hailed by commentators as a happy by-product of the American-led invasion of the country. For example, Jeffrey Goldberg, in a dispute with Glenn Greenwald last year, cited the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Premier, Barham Salih, to defend the invasion from the charge that it was a "criminal act." Even Joe Klein, who disparages the "dreadful" Iraq War, celebrates Iraqi Kurdistan as amounting to "liberation of the Kurds." Of course, this image is based on the notion that Iraqi Kurdistan is more democratic, liberal and pro-American than the government in Baghdad. But is that an accurate judgment?

One particularly useful way of answering this question is to look at how the Kurdish authorities have responded to protests in their territory that have arisen as part of what has widely been dubbed the "Arab Spring." To preface, however, I should like to state that I am not interested in debating the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War by reference to developments in Iraqi Kurdistan. Questions such as whether the U.S. should have invaded in the first place or whether Iran's position in the region has been strengthened, have been debated ad nauseam. I see no reason to revisit them here.

Despite the conventional wisdom that Iraq has been fairly quiet during the "Arab Spring," in reality there has been continual unrest across the nation since February. Demonstrators in both Iraqi Kurdistan and areas of the centre and south have a variety of grievances, including the Turkish and Iranian stranglehold on the country's water supplies, massive corruption in government, poor public services and lack of security and protection against terrorist attacks.

During a visit to Doha (the capital of Qatar), Barham Salih had an interview with a Qatari paper, affirming that the protests in Kurdistan were an indication of the strength of democratic and civil society in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. As he himself put it, "We should not be afraid of the protests. We should not be afraid of our people when they demand reforms. On the contrary, it's a step forward for reforms." Unfortunately, however, he entirely glossed over the harsh crackdown on demonstrations by the Kurdish security forces, harassment of media covering the protests, and the punitive measures undertaken against the opposition parties that aligned with the protestors. Rather than being a sign of a healthy liberal-democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan, the course of events during the unrest in the north paints a more sobering picture that is little different from the authoritarian response of Nouri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad to demonstrations in the central and southern provinces.

Protests in Kurdistan first took off in mid-February. On February 17, there was a gathering in Saray Square in the city of Sulaymaniyah, an important economic center for Iraqi Kurdistan around 160 miles northeast of Baghdad. In this case, the demonstration's organizers had received permission from the city council to stage their protest. That day also saw a march on the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which comprises half of the ruling coalition in the KRG.

During the march, protestors threw rocks at the building. In response, security guards opened fire to disperse the crowd, resulting in the death of a 15-year old boy and leaving 50 others injured. Meanwhile, in the city of Arbil, which lies 50 miles east of Mosul and is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, protests were planned but were thwarted by the authorities, who refused to grant permission. Even so, a few turned up, only to face violent reprisal at the hands of the Kurdish security forces, and agents quickly spread throughout Arbil, promptly imposing a curfew in an attempt to prevent any further gatherings of protestors from taking place. The ruling authorities then turned their attention towards the "Change List," which is the largest opposition group in the KRG, seeing the protests in Sulaymaniyah as a casus belli. Indeed, security forces and supporters of Massoud Barazani, president of the KRG, attacked the Change List's offices in Soran, Shawlawa, Dohuk, Dinaslawa and Arbil. In Arbil, the office was set on fire, and the Change Movement's TV station (KNN) was banned from broadcasting.

On the other hand, the Change List denied any involvement in the demonstrations while vociferously condemning the violent crackdown on protestors. In any case, the initial authoritarian measures undertaken by the Kurdish protestors did not deter people from gathering at Saray Square on an almost daily basis until the end of April. In other cities, demonstrators continued to stage rallies, facing violent opposition from the security forces. Consequently, the opposition would come to align itself with the protests, whereas media that tried to cover the events would be harassed in various ways.

On February 19, around 2000 university students in Sulaymaniyah attempted to hold a demonstration, occurring on the same day as other protests in Baghdad. Besides the expected denouncing of corruption, unemployment and poor public services, added to the list of grievances was a demand for Massoud Barazani to apologize for the shootings at the earlier protests in Sulaymaniyah. As Frishta Karim, a 21-year-old student at Sulaymaniyah University put it, "The authorities in the region [i.e. Kurdistan] do not understand what democracy means. We firmly reject the use of weapons against demonstrators." However, police refused to allow the student protestors to leave the university campus. In addition, on February 19, approximately 1000 people showed up at Saray Square, demanding the release of individuals arrested on suspicion of ties to organizers of the rally that took place two days before. They further called for the head of the KDP's office in Sulaymaniyah to be prosecuted, claiming that he had given the order for KDP guards to open fire on demonstrators. As with the protest on February 17, security forces again shot at protestors, killing two and injuring fourteen.

Nevertheless, over the course of the following week, unrest began to spread across Sulaymaniyah Governorate. For example, in the town of Halabja" (about 150 miles northeast of Baghdad), demonstrators marched on February 22 in solidarity with the protests in Sulaymaniyah, attacking the headquarters of the local branch of the KDP with stones. There were demands that the Kurdish government and parliament resign in order to make way for what nearly three weeks ago the Change List had termed "early transparent elections. "Furthermore, the protestors complained of the "monopolization" of political and economic authority by the KDP-led government. During this protest, 20 people were wounded in a confrontation with the local security forces, and spokespersons for the ruling coalition in the KRG described the demonstrators as "anarchists and vandals, putting at stake Kurdistan's achievements and security."

Two days later, people in Sulaymaniyah marched on the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which makes up the other half of the ruling coalition in the KRG and is headed by current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. They were throwing stones at the building. In response, security guards fired back at protestors. One policeman was killed and two protestors were wounded in the clashes, even as the KRG declared officially that it would commission an investigation into the incidents in Sulaymaniyah on February 17.

February 25 was known across Iraq as the official "Day of Rage," with major demonstrations throughout the country, including protests in Sulaymaniyah, Kirkuk, Ranya, Chamchamal, Sayid Sadiq and Kalar, although Arbil and Dohuk remained relatively quiet on that day. In particular, Chamchamal -- a town with a mixed Arab, Turkmen and Kurdish population of 180,000 -- witnessed a 500 person strong march on the office of the town's deputy mayor and the KDP headquarters, culminating in a clash with security guards that killed a 12-year-old child and left several injured. It was claimed that protestors began stoning the deputy mayor's office, but it remains unclear as to whether the protestors or security forces initiated the violence. In Kalar, another multi-ethnic city, a 19-year-old protestor, Dilan Ahmed, was killed and 26 were wounded, including four policemen, as the KDP's local branch was attacked by the demonstrators. The KDP likewise saw its local headquarters stoned in Sayid Sadiq, leaving three policemen and one officer wounded.

Meanwhile, protestors in Sulaymaniyah issued a variety of demands to the KRG, including the right to allow demonstrators to attend the meetings of political parties, freedom of expression in universities and removing political parties from government administration. They also called for reforming the Kurdish constitution, appointing non-partisan bureaucrats to the security ministries, putting on trial security guards who shot at demonstrators, and cutting the salaries of top officials and lawmakers. In light of this, the Change List and two minor Islamist opposition parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), began to come out in support of the protests, partly because they had made similar demands and with the intention of putting pressure on the KDP and PUK.

Indeed, following the "Day of Rage," the opposition jointly issued a 7-point reform program that primarily condemned the use of force against the protestors and stressed the necessity for calling early elections. However, citing the continued employment of violence against the protests, the opposition would eventually boycott the regional government", and call for the dissolution of the government as a vote of no confidence was rejected by a majority of the KRG's parliament, with a margin of 67 to 28 votes in the 110-seat parliament. This was so despite six emergency meetings held by the KRG parliament between the 26 February and 10 March.

As is the case at present with the Baathist regime in Syria, these expressions of discontent caught the ruling coalition of the PUK and KDP off guard. In fact, just one day before the protests in Kurdistan began, a senior Kurdish parliamentarian, Mahmoud Othman, said that the demonstrations happening across the Middle East and North Africa could not take place in Iraqi Kurdistan, pointing to what he said was the democratic political environment and stable security situation of the region.

Initially, the ruling coalition launched verbal attacks on the demonstrators and the opposition. For example, Rwber, a weekly newspaper that publicly professes to be independent but is in reality closely affiliated with the KDP, tried to discredit the protestors by accusing the Iranian Revolutionary Guard of being behind the unrest that began in Sulaymaniyah on February 17. It claimed the demonstrations were plotted "in revenge" for the stoning of Iran's consulate in Arbil in January by people denouncing the execution of Kurdish activists in Iran. In a similar vein, a Kurdish news outlet close to the KDP, Peyamner, said that the leadership of the Change List was conferring on the border with Iranian officials in order to incite protestors to attack KDP headquarters in Sulaymaniyah. Quoting an unnamed source, Peyamner affirmed that the Revolutionary Guard's "Mariwan headquarters, a Kurdish city in Iran, had recently urged its agents to create a state of disorder in Sulaymaniyah and consequently a civil war." At this point, the KIU claimed that several of its members and media personnel in Arbil received death threats via phone call, amidst reports suggesting that some leaders from the Kurdish Islamist parties were amongst those for whom the security forces had issued an arrest warrant for supposedly joining the protestors and inciting them to violence.

The PUK proceeded to target independent media and opposition-affiliated press that were covering the protests in Iraqi Kurdistan. On February 17, an independent TV and radio station known as "Nalia Radio and TV" (NRT) started broadcasting; it was the only channel running stories about the initial protests in Sulaymaniyah. Three days later, NRT TV's director received threatening phone calls, before around 50 armed men broke into the channel's offices and set them on fire. KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih would later claim that nine people were arrested in connection with this act of vandalism, and that two of them were members of a counterterrorism unit as part of the Kurdish security forces. Nevertheless, no evidence has since emerged even of a trial, let alone a punishment for the men involved in the attack.

Similarly, Kamal Rauf, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Hawlati, reported that many journalists working for his newspaper and covering the protests were assaulted by the security forces. He also complained that his staff had to evacuate the newspaper's headquarters for a few days because of threats via phone calls. In Kalar, Deng Radio station was attacked by unidentified gunmen, who destroyed the station's building and stole some valuable equipment. By March 10, the Kurdistan Journalists Syndicate (KJS) reported that around 100 journalists operating in Iraqi Kurdistan had been threatened with death or physically assaulted.

The PUK authorities in Sulaymaniyah also targeted the activists behind the protests. On February 26, anti-riot police employed sound bombs and fired live ammunition into a crowd gathered in Saray Square, trying to disperse the protest. One protestor was subsequently killed. The next day, an imam gave a speech in the square, denouncing corruption in the KRG. He was then kidnapped by four Peshmerga (Kurdish militiamen) from the PUK, beaten, tortured and held for four days. At the end of March, he was arrested again and detained for a week. On March 1, an opposition lawmaker from the Change List, Karwan Salih, said that seven people were arrested and tortured by the police in Arbil amid protests there on the previous Friday.

In contrast, the KDP in Arbil were more proactive and authoritarian in their repression of protests from the beginning. In mid-February, the Kurdistan Students' Union, tied to the KDP, ordered all university students in Arbil to go home or all the services at the colleges would be shut down. This pre-emptive act sought to send away all potential demonstrators who might try to organize rallies in the coming days. On February 25, some protestors attempted to hold a march in Arbil's central square, only to be dispersed by security officers. Seven members of the Change List who were taking part in the protest were arrested before the demonstration even started, while reporters for Radio Nawa and independent cameramen saw their equipment confiscated by the security forces in the face of threats of rape. In addition, a man working for a local NGO was kidnapped and beaten, since he refused to give up his cell phone in the square. A clear message of deterrence was thus sent out to would-be protestors and those intending to report on demonstrations in Arbil.

As March dragged on, however, the Kurdish authorities began to state in public that they were ready and willing to listen to the protestors' demands. For example, on March 17, Jalal Talabani announced his support for the demonstrators' grievances in a speech at Saray Square, addressing the protestors' "Temporary Council." As he himself put it, "We support all your legitimate demands and strive to accelerate their achievement." He also took the opportunity to proclaim that the authorities wished to ensure "decent life and freedoms for you." This echoed statements issued by Barham Salih three days before. Salih declared that he fully agreed with the demands for the release of those detained during demonstrations, questioning of interior and Peshmerga forces in the parliament and the need to try those responsible for the deaths of protestors. He also gave a formal apology on behalf of the KRG to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan for the clashes between security forces and protestors, as well as the subsequent casualties.

On March 21, the head of the provincial council in Sulaymaniyah, Kawa Abdullah, claimed that Massoud Barazani would resign as president of the KRG if the government failed to implement his proposed reform package within four months. Barazani further suggested early elections to reshuffle the then 18-month-old Kurdish cabinet (the sixth one since the establishment of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in 1991 after the First Gulf War), and emphasized the need to set up an integrity committee to look into the problem of government corruption. At the end of the month, Barazani said that he would pass a 7-point program that featured concessions and warnings to activists. For, while it promised to compel the courts to take legal action against members of the security forces who fired on protestors during demonstrations in Sulaymaniyah in February, it also threatened the arrest and trial of any activists who held a gathering without a permit or attacked government property.

Even now, none of the promised reforms documented above has been implemented by the KRG, something that should not come as a surprise, if we consider the record in practice during the months of March and April. On March 6, masked men attacked tents that demonstrators had set up in Saray Square, and on March 11, the KDP organized a celebratory rally in Arbil to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Iraqi Kurdistan from Saddam Hussein. The intention of the latter was to block a planned protest on that day. On April 2, protestors attempted to march through Sulaymaniyah, but faced the water cannons and bullets of riot police who aimed to break up the demonstration. As a result, 44 members of the police and 12 protestors were injured in the violent confrontation that ensued.

Tired of the continual unrest by mid-April, the KRG acted decisively to end the protest movement. Beginning on April 17, protestors tried to hold another march through Sulaymaniyah, only to be met by police who utilized tear gas and batons, leaving 56 wounded. This occurred while Azad Jundiani, the politburo spokesman for the PUK, said that the PUK and KDP would engage in talks with the opposition in order to "find a way out of the current crisis in Kurdistan." Another clash followed on the next day in Sulaymaniyah, with security forces firing on protestors and wounding sixteen of them. Likewise, a rally on April 18, held in Arbil at the local Salah al-Din University and staged by a group of university professors, clerics and students, was broken up forcefully, with 22 wounded in clashes as journalists and bystanders with cameras were attacked by police. A local police chief in Arbil later did his best to deny that any protest had occurred or that there had been any clashes between civilians and local security forces.

On April 19, the security forces, anti-riot police and Peshmerga militia swiftly moved in to clear Saray Square of all remaining protestors. They also broke through a march that was heading towards Sulaymaniyah's main court, in the hope of preventing protestors from holding a sit-in outside the court's building. A number of demonstrators were arrested on that day. The Governorate of Sulaymaniyah then banned all "unlicensed demonstrations" in the city. The security committee of further vowed to end all protests in Sulaymaniyah. By this point, protestors had continuously remained in Saray Square for 62 days, affirming that they would not go home until their demands were met. Yet the protestors' resilience was not to last, as Saray Square was cleared from April 19 onwards.

Meanwhile, the authorities intensified their efforts against the local media and opposition as part of their crackdown on the protest movement. To conceal the harsh suppression of the demonstrations, journalists covering the protests were chased away by the security forces, amidst a strike staged by the Kurdistan Lawyers Syndicate (KLS) in outrage at the assaults committed against protestors who had gathered in front of a court in Sulaymaniyah, whereas KNN TV, affiliated with the Change List, had its transmission blocked. Moreover, the KIG's Payam TV station was surrounded by security forces and then attacked with live ammunition. In the meantime, a spokesman for the demonstrators, a journalist for the KIU and a member of the Sulaymaniyah provincial council (head of the KIU faction in the 41-member council) all had their cars destroyed with explosives, and two of the KIU's offices were attacked. By the end of the month, the Change List as well as the two Islamist parties all reported that their budgets had been cut by the KRG, saying they planned to go to court to contest the KRG's decision to reduce their budgets in retaliation for their support for the protests. In Iraqi Kurdistan, funding for political parties in the parliament is distributed by the KRG, and not necessarily according to the number of seats that a party has in the parliament. For instance, the Kurdistan Communist Party, with one seat, receives the same allocation as the Change List that has 25 seats.

And so by the start of May the protest movement in Iraqi Kurdistan was largely finished, put down with methods that have differed little from Nouri al-Maliki's ruthless tactics in Baghdad. Since February 17, activists in Iraqi Kurdistan say that around 10 protestors have been killed in protests, more than 500 injured and more than 900 arrested by the police and security forces, while the Iraqi Association for Defending Journalists has documented 226 reported violations of press freedom in Sulaymaniyah. The talk of reform in the KRG was little more than a farce, and the authorities showed their true colors in targeting not only demonstrators but also media and opposition groups in Arbil and Sulaymaniyah. Iraqi Kurdistan is frequently touted as the "other Iraq," in contrast to the central and southern regions of the country. That is, it is supposedly the more stable and democratic region of Iraq, yet in reality the Kurdish ruling parties have been just as authoritarian as Nouri al-Maliki.

Even before the protests, these illiberal, anti-democratic trends should have been noticed in the behavior of the Kurdish authorities towards minority groups in Iraqi Kurdistan. A hallmark of liberal democracy is the protection of minorities and their rights. On this matter, the KRG has proven to be a sore failure. A 2007 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) notes:

Government complicity in religiously-motivated discrimination is reported in the pro-Western Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). According to the State Department, Christians and other minorities 'living in the area north of Mosul asserted that the KRG confiscated their property without compensation...Chaldo-Assyrian Christians have also alleged that KRG officials affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party deny Christians key social benefits, including employment and housing.

The report goes on to note that:

KRG officials were also reported to have used public works projects to divert water and other vital resources from Chaldo-Assyrian to Kurdish communities...leading to mass exodus, which was later followed by the seizure and conversion of abandoned Chaldo-Assyrian property by the local Kurdish population. Turkmen groups in the region surrounding Tel Afer also report similar abuses by Kurdish officials, suggesting a pattern of pervasive discrimination, harassment and marginalization.

Indeed, the Kurdish authorities have actively engaged in political violence and cultural suppression of minorities in Iraq's north. Just as Arab nationalists insist that all people in the Middle East and North Africa must be part of a pan-Arab identity, the KDP and KPU have been attempting to impose a pan-Kurdish identity on the people of northern Iraq, in pursuit of a vision of a greater Kurdistan. This has above all entailed repressive measures against political parties representing minorities such as the Assyrians. For instance, during the 2005 elections, Kurdish authorities given the task of delivering ballot boxes to Assyrian districts in Iraqi Kurdistan failed to do so, while Assyrian election workers were fired on and killed. This was all done with the goal of marginalizing the Assyrian Democratic Movement that is the legitimate representative of the Assyrian community in Iraq.

A more recent case in point was the arrest of Wa'ad Hamad Matto, leader of the Yezidi Progress Movement (representing the Yezidis, who refuse to identify as Kurds but are not recognized as a distinct ethnic group in Article 5 of the KRG constitution), on 5 September, 2009. Today, he remains in jail, since he refused to submit to demands for Kurdish control over certain Yezidi communities in the Nineveh plain, having criticized Kurdish security forces on television for failing to maintain security in the Sinjar area, where two explosions had taken place.

Of course, it is lamentable that there has been so little coverage in the international press of the authoritarianism and cultural imperialism of the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq, not only vis--vis the protest movement that first arose in February of this year but also the treatment of minorities since Iraqi Kurdistan first achieved a degree of autonomy in 1991. The unfortunate consequence of the lack of media attention is that the ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan feel no outside pressure to initiate reform. Their foremost concern has been to keep a firm hold on power, as they have done so for at least 20 years through familial, tribal and political connections, combined with repression of political opponents. This has thoroughly instilled in the Kurdish authorities a sense of a lack of accountability. It is time for the Western media outlets in particular to stop ignoring these unpleasant developments in Iraqi Kurdistan, and for Washington to think beyond simply maintaining friendly ties with the KRG while turning a blind eye to anti-democratic trends in Iraq's Kurdish areas.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a student of Iraqi descent at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and is an intern at the Middle East Forum.


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