By NAMO ABDULLA -- Reuters
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq, March 20 - Thousands took to the streets on Sunday in the biggest protest yet against the government of Iraq's semi-autonomous northern Kurdish area, inspired by uprisings across the Middle East.
Protesters say the regional government, funded by a share of Iraq's oil wealth, has become corrupt and undemocratic.
Demonstrators have camped out since last month in the main square of Sulaimaniya, the second largest city in the Kurdish zone, calling for the ouster of the regional government.
Iraq's Kurdish zone enjoys near total autonomy and has been dominated for decades by two political parties whose former guerrilla militias are now the regional security forces.
Thousands of people packed the square on Sunday to celebrate the traditional Kurdish and Persian new year festival of Newroz.
The celebration turned into a protest rally, with crowds waving Kurdish flags and chanting slogans calling for reform and an end to corruption. A giant traditional bonfire burned in the square. Parents held children up to get a better view.
"We are gathering in thousands today to celebrate the festival of Newroz and to stress that we still ask for our demands of reforms to be answered," said Nasik Qadir, spokeswoman for protesters in Sulaimaniya. "We are here to say that our demands have still not been met."
Iraqis, inspired by uprisings elsewhere in the region, have been protesting for weeks against corruption and a lack of basic services, although rallies outside of the Kurdish area have subsided somewhat since at least 10 people died in a day of violent protests last month.
In Sulaimaniya, where protests have been an almost daily event, mass anger has been directed at the regional government, dominated by regional President Massoud Barzani's KDP party and the PUK party of Iraq's national President Jalal Talabani and Kurdish regional Prime Minister Barham Saleh.
"I always come here. My voice is with the voice of all the young people here," said 28-year-old housewife Shiraz Mahmoud, who was dressed in traditional attire for Newroz and protesting in Sulaimaniya's central square.
"My father is a PUK martyr, but I believe the PUK is all corrupt. It has done nothing, it's a facade. I don't want the prime minister, I don't want the president," she said.
Sunday's protests in Sulaimaniya, although the largest so far, were peaceful with a minimal security presence, contrasting with last month when protesters trying to storm the KDP's headquarters clashed with security forces.
(Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil)