Kurdish Town Swept by Day of Rioting

Hundreds take to the streets in violent protest against poor standard of public services.

By Charles McDermid and Tiare Rath in Pirmagrun (ICR No. 317, 23-Dec-09)

Hundreds of Kurdish government police and soldiers stormed the town of Pirmargrun on December 23 after a day of rioting left dozens injured and police vehicles in flames. It was the biggest day of street violence in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2006.

Unarmed protesters took to the streets in the early morning to voice their anger over poor public services and what they said was rampant corruption among local officials.

They used boulders to blockade roads into the town and assaulted municipal officials.

The violence was triggered by a TV broadcast the night before in which mayor Awat Tofiq claimed residents were "blind" to the infrastucture projects taking place in the town.

The mob overpowered local police and attacked the top district official, Salam Omar, when he arrived on the scene to call for calm.

Police called in from the nearby city of Sulaimaniyah attempted to quell the protests by firing live rounds into the air, but were forced to back down. Two of the police’s armoured personnel carriers were seized and torched.

A 27-year-old former member of the Kurdish peshmerga military force, whose name is withheld out of concern for his safety, gave IWPR an account of what had gone on.

"We beat the local head of the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], and when the head of the district came to tell us to stop, we beat him too. When a representative of [Iraqi president Jalal] Talabani arrived, we threw stones at him. We went looking for the mayor, but he went into hiding," he said.

Anti-riot police and military troops armed with automatic weapons and machine guns mounted on vehicles entered the town at dusk, firing over the heads of fleeing protesters, eyewitnesses said.

By nightfall, the town of some 24,000 inhabitants was tense as locals waited in fearful anticipation of house-to-house searches during the night.

"The town is quiet and everyone is scared. The forces have surrounded the government buildings and officials' houses," local resident Bakir Gurunn, 25, told IWPR by phone from inside the town. "We are very scared that they might search our houses later tonight and arrest people. I’m not going to sleep at my house; I’m going to hide."

Seventeen injured policemen were taken to hospital, Hakim Qadir, the security chief for Sulaimaniyah province, told IWPR.

Several protesters were also injured, with one hospitalised with a gunshot wound, demonstrators and medical sources reported.

Qadir condemned the violence. He told IWPR that no arrests had been made by nightfall on December 23, but warned that anyone who had broken the law would be detained.

"The situation is now under control," he said in a phone interview from Pirmargrun.

"There was no need for the people in the town to come out like this. If they have problems they should have sent a delegation to the Kurdish Regional Government."

The townspeople claim that mayor Tofik, who is a PUK appointee, has neglected the town and its citizens. Numerous protesters spoke of a lack of electricity, sewage systems and domestic water supplies.

"Do you see that mountain?" said Sarkawt Muhammad Amin, sweeping an arm towards the towering, snow-capped peak after which the town is named. "Up to the top of that mountain is how much we hate the mayor."

Tofiq, who has served as mayor for four years, has denied the allegations of mismanagement.

On the morning of the protests, he issued an apology for accusing residents of being "blind".

This failed to placate some 700 of the protesters who marched on the mayor's abandoned office at four in the afternoon, shattering its windows with stones and vandalising its ornate garden. They dispersed when gunmen on the roof of the local PUK headquarters across the street opened fire above their heads.

As the protesters fled, several were kicked, beaten with rifle butts and dragged through the streets, as witnessed by IWPR reporters.

Pirmagrun was built in 1988 as a refugee camp for people displaced by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Anfal campaign against the Kurds.

These days, the town is known as a stronghold for the fledgling opposition party Change. Security forces told IWPR that they blamed the riot on Change, a charge that locals denied.

“There is no one behind this. There is no outside hand,” said Star Khidir, a 50-year-old civil servant who said he did not participate in the protest himself because he feared losing his job.

Other residents agreed that their concerns were purely about the alleged corruption that left them without access to public utilities.

"There are no politics today. This is all about the services that were promised to us. We have no electricity, no water, no sewage – that is why we reacted this way," said Mustafa Ahmed, a 70-year-old elder.

"We will be back tomorrow, and even if they fire on us, we won’t stop."

Ahmed has lived in the town since it was established, and pointed out that at least 1,000 of the families here have relatives who died in the Anfal campaign.

He said people in the town had heard enough "words and broken promises".

"I was expelled from my home and brought to live here 20 years ago. The Kurdish government hasn't given me as much as one cigarette," he said. "We cannot live without services and today we did something about it."

The riot was the largest since Halabja residents took to the streets in 2006, again to protest poor services. At that time, Kurdish military forces deployed in the town were accused of firing on civilians as the riots broke out. One teenage boy was killed and several young demonstrators were arrested.

Kurdish security forces were accused of using excessive force against protesters in several other demonstrations between 2005 and 2006. After the Halabja riot, the Kurdistan Regional Government created a riot police force that is authorised to carry batons and electric stun guns, but not firearms.

Rawan Sabir, a representative for KRG prime minister Barham Saleh’s office in Sulaimaniyah, walked into Pirmargrun accompanied by two members of the security forces shortly after the gunfire erupted.

Sabir acknowledged that the protesters had taken to the streets because of poor services, and also because of the mayor’s remarks on television.

“People believe that services are not adequate for the demand,” he said.

Sabir said the KRG had begun road and water infrastructure projects in the town a few months ago, but that they were not yet complete.

He said he would “try to look at their demands and explain why this happened to the prime minister".

Jalal Karim, KRG deputy interior minister, held a meeting together with security official Qadir after their forces dispersed the rioters.

Residents threatened to continue the protest until two people who they said were arrested during the riots were released, and until their demands for proper utilities were addressed.

“We’re ten years behind every other place in this area,” said 27-year-old Sarkowt Khalid, a day labourer who participated in the protest. “Most towns have paved roads and pavements, but when it rains in our town we have to wear boots just to get through the mud.”

A local policeman, who did not want to be identified, said that half of the town had no water supply, while the other half received just one hour of water every three days.

Pashowa Khasro, a high school student, said he heard about the protest from some of his fellow-students. He joined the demonstration after finishing exams in the afternoon.

“People are opening their eyes and won’t accept corruption. How long are people going to have to suffer with promises unfulfilled?” he said.

Charles McDermid and Tiare Rath are IWPR editors in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR reporters Hemin H Lihony, Mariwan Hama-Saeed and Rahman Gharib contributed to this report from Pirmagrun and Sulaimaniyah.