Sulaimaniyah in Eye of Storm
Iraqi Kurdistan city seeing growing number of protests, with demonstrators demanding an end to corruption, nepotism and better services.
By Shorsh Khalid - Iraq
ICR Issue 368,
24 Feb 11
Demonstrations in Sulaimaniyah are gaining momentum, with thousands of people defying the authorities this week to rally for better governance in the region’s largest province.
Daily protests have been staged in the city, in the wake of a bloody February 17 rally, which also set off demonstrations in at least six towns across the province.
The biggest gathering in Sulaimaniyah, on February 24, drew an estimated 10,000 demonstrators to the city centre, which they have dubbed “Freedom Square”.
As the protests grow, participants appear to be more organised, diverse and unified in their demands for better basic services, political reform and the eradication of corruption.
Intellectuals, writers, opposition members of parliament, women, clerics and civil society advocates have joined the crowds, in stark contrast to the waves of young men who took to the streets last week. Several rallies have also been held at universities and schools.
“We will continue demonstrating,” said Awat Mohamed, coordinator at the Civil Society Federation, an umbrella body for 14 non-governmental organisations. Protest organisers, he continued, are coordinating with demonstrators in several towns in Sulaimaniyah province.
“Corrupt officials must be dismissed from their jobs and brought to justice,” Mohamed said.
The demonstrations are placing unprecedented pressure on the region’s ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, to reform.
Oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed economic growth and relatively stable security. But many citizens, especially the young, say they are fed up with pervasive corruption, poor services and chronic nepotism.
Ali Kawes, a resident of Sulaimaniyah, carried a broken chair during a protest, which he said served as a symbol of broken promises by officials and a warning that the authorities will be deposed.
“I have been jobless for four years, but the sons of the officials can get the best jobs they want in couple of days,” he said. “We want to put an end to this injustice.”
Hawraz Rasoul, a 22-year-old street vendor, was among protesters chanting anti-corruption slogans in downtown Sulaimaniyah.
“We demand better living conditions but they responded by shooting at us,” he said. “We will keep holding peaceful demonstration until we force the authorities to make reforms.”
The unrest has been coupled with sporadic violence. Four people, including a policeman, have been killed and 150 injured since the trouble began on February 17, according to hospital sources.
Party and state security forces have fired on demonstrators at several of the rallies; opposition offices have been ransacked; and a new private television and radio broadcast station, Nalia, was shot at and torched over the weekend.
To counter the violence, peace activists have handed flowers to members of the security forces and formed a human shield around protesters in Sulaimaniyah to prevent clashes.
Still, tensions are running high and security has been beefed up in the region. Thousands of security and military forces are patrolling the normally quiet streets of Sulaimaniyah and encircling protesters.
While the protests have been limited to Sulaimaniyah province, neighbouring Erbil is tightening security and appears to be taking measures to prevent turbulence spreading to Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital.
Security forces are not allowing single men to enter the region through Erbil until next week, warning of a possible attack there, and students at the University of Salahaddin in the city were told classes will be suspended for over a month.
In an emergency session of the Kurdistan regional parliament, lawmakers condemned the attacks against demonstrators and political parties, calling for protesters to be released from custody and for those who shot at protesters to be brought to justice.
Parliamentarians also agreed to question senior leaders and military officials, including the region’s embattled prime minister, Barham Saleh.
Saleh met opposition factions as protests heated up this week, but they failed to reach an agreement on reforms.
Fazil Omar, an adviser to the prime minister, said parties were continuing to discuss solutions to the crisis. He said the demonstrators’ demands were legitimate, and should be “addressed immediately”.
“The youth are unemployed, hungry and need opportunities,” he added.
Opposition leaders, however, accused the ruling parties of trying to contain the protests rather than address them.
“They have been saying that they will make reform and eradicate corruption for the past several years but they have failed to do so,” Mohamed Tawfiq, spokesman for Goran, the main opposition party, said. “We demanded that the ruling parties give a decisive answer to the demonstrators.”
Small-scale demonstrations were held in towns across Sulaimaniyah province as locals expressed support for the demands of protesters in the provincial capital and called for better governance.
In Halabja, 80 kilometres east of Sulaimaniyah, hundreds of people marched towards the offices of the KDP, calling on the party to leave the town.
A policeman was killed and 31 people were injured, the majority of them anti-riot police, when protesters threw stones at the building and security forces fired into the air, according to local health officials.
Nasih Rahim, a protest organiser, said the demonstration was intended to show solidarity with protesters in Sulaimaniyah who were shot at by KDP forces on February 17.
“We want the authorities to take a hard look at themselves and make reforms,” he said.
At the university of Sulaimaniyah, daily rallies have been held all week.
“What kind of justice is this?” student Hedi Mohamed asked. “Young people in this city don’t even make 1,000 dinars (approximately 85 US cents) but the sons of the officials own brand-new cars and villas and are enjoying their lives in front of our eyes.
“We have to make this stop.”
Shorish Khalid is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.