Saturday, February 19, 2011

Anti-Government Protests Still Rage in Kurdistan's Sulaimani


Protesters tried to storm one of the ruling parties' headquarters in Sulaimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, on Thursday.------ Photo by Rudaw.

“We are all Rezhwan!” read one demonstrator’s banner Saturday, referring to the 14-year-old student demonstrator, who was killed by Iraqi Kurdish security forces in the city of Sulaimani on Thursday, after hundreds of protesters tried to storm the headquarters of one of Kurdistan’s two ruling parties.

Just two days after the bloody protest, more than a thousand students and general citizens again protested here in Sulaimani, objecting to the death of at least one student and the injury of more than 50 others, caused by bullets fired by security forces affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani.

Twelve more had reportedly been injured by Saturday evening.

Large numbers of heavily armed security forces, including thousands of KDP soldiers from Erbil, have been deployed in most of Sulaimani’s streets, according to government and party officials and Rudaw correspondents in Sulaimani.

Just as on Thursday, demonstrators called for an improvement in services such as electricity, but there were also anti-government slogans demanding reform from the authorities, with some calling on the government to step down.

Simultaneously, in Khanaqin – a disputed town inhabited predominately by Kurds in Dyala province – several hundred other students from the College of Arts, wearing black clothes, demonstrated over similar issues.

After Thursday’s protest, some officials from the ruling parties accused Iraqi Kurdistan’s major opposition party, Gorran, of being behind the protest, particularly when it became violent, with some protesters throwing rocks at the KDP headquarters’ windows.

In a move which appeared to be a reaction to events in Sulaimani, a number of KDP supporters, some of them armed, on Thursday set two Gorran offices in Erbil on fire. The KDP denied any involvement in the incident.

But the deputy chairman of the KDP, Nechirvan Barzani, did not point the blame at any specific political party on Friday. In a press conference he described protesters’ demands for political and economic reform as legitimate.

However, he said that Kurdistan was “very far from” Tunisia and Egypt and that the Kurdish leaders and government were elected in free and fair elections.

“I urge you to consider that we do not accuse any political party or organization of committing those crimes,” said Barzani, referring to the attack on his party’s headquarters, at which point the demonstration turned bloody with the firing of bullets into the mob of young protesters. “We want those issues investigated.”

Barzani added that it was not fair to attack the KDP headquarters in Sulaimani, because he said the party was not responsible for the corruption and lack of electricity in the city, which was dominated by the PUK and Gorran, adding that the attack on the KDP office was politically motivated.

“We want to know who did it because we know it was preplanned,” said Barzani, confirming that a number of Zeravai forces, loyal to the KDP, were sent to Sulaimani to help maintain order in the city, which included protecting the KDP’s offices in the city.

But many people here in Sulaimani city, where Gorran is the most popular political party, have voiced concern regarding the deployment of KDP-affiliated forces in the city and said that they believed the forces are there to launch an attack on Gorran’s headquarters, based on Sulaimani’s Zargata Hill.

Right after the deployment of the forces, hundreds of unarmed Gorran supporters gathered around the hill in order to prevent any possible assault from the ruling parties on Gorran’s main office and satellite television station, KNN, which has played a significant role in rousing people’s anger against the government.

Hundreds of demonstrators protesting in Sulaimani’s Bar Darqi Sara Square have not only called for the KDP troops to go to back to Erbil, but have also demanded all political parties to close their headquarters in the city.

Some described Bar Darqi Sara as Iraqi Kurdistan’s “Tahir Square,” the name of the town square in Cairo where Egyptians protested for 18 days until they toppled former President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime.

Faruq Rafiq, a prominent Kurdish author, took part in Saturday’s protest, which appeared to be smaller than Thursday’s.

In a statement, Rafiq said the KDP officials in Sulaimani who ordered the shooting, and those who did the actual shooting, must be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, anti-Kurdistan government demonstrations have also been occurring in Europe.
In London, for instance, about a hundred people demonstrated in front of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s office, and some stormed the building.

The handful of demonstrators reportedly took control of the office for an hour, but later were expelled by the British police.

“Freedom cannot be silenced,” read one banner held by Kurdish expatriate demonstrators in London.
“Seven or eight men and women started knocking on our office door,” said Bayan Sami Abdul-Rahman, KRG’s representative to the United Kingdom. “They were very uncivilized and started swearing at us.”

Ms Abdul-Rahman said that KRG’s representation in London was back to normal work on Friday.

President Barzani, who has come under sever criticism from the Sulaimani protesters, with some calling him a dictator who should step down, issued a statement, saying the attack on his party’s headquarters was the work of some who “were determined to undermine the stability” of the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

“While it is clear that a very small group of people are determined to undermine the stability of the region and detract from the significant economic, social and political progress it has made over the last decade, a much greater number of our people are mindful of their intentions and stand united in determination to overcome any move towards violence or chaos,” said Barzani. “I call on the KRG to open an immediate investigation into this incident and hold those responsible for today’s violence accountable.”

A statement by Gorran leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, on Thursday not only denied Gorran being behind the protest, but also harshly condemned the attack on the KDP’s headquarters. It also described those who had thrown rocks at the building as “saboteurs.”

While the demonstrations here are in part inspired by those in Egypt and the broader Middle East, people here have generally not been as extreme as those in the Middle East, where citizens called for entire regime changes.

What they have asked for instead is a broad range of political and economic reform, including an end to corruption and nepotism associated with the ruling parties.

Ruling officials, such as Barzani, have recognized these demands, calling on the government to carry out reform. In addition, on Friday, Nechirvan Barzani said that problems could only be resolved “at table” with dialogue and not “on the streets” and “in newspaper pages.”

Rozh Ahmad contributed reporting from the United Kingdom, and other Rudaw correspondents contributed from Sulaimani.

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