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Iraqi Kurdistan: the mythical 'Other Iraq'

by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi. July 17, 2011.

Posted: Monday, July 18, 2011 at 04:40 PM CT


Flash back to 2002, and one may recall the numerous pieces by journalists such as Jeffrey Goldberg that highlighted the atrocities Iraq's Kurds suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime. Undoubtedly, the intention was to make the case for the impending American invasion on humanitarian grounds. In the years that followed, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan gained a reputation as the "other Iraq," supposedly being more liberal, pro-American and democratic than the central government in Baghdad. This claim has been accepted even among prominent commentators like Joe Klein, who denounces Bush's "dreadful war" in Iraq.

However, reality offers a more sobering picture. Iraqi Kurdistan saw the beginning of its own protest movement in mid-February. The demonstrations were centered on Saray Square in the economic hub of Sulaymaniyah. Protests intensified after security forces opened fire to disperse the crowds in Saray Square on February 17, killing a 15-year old boy and leaving 50 injured. Accusing opposition parties and Iran's Revolutionary Guards of inciting the demonstrations, supporters of the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) president Massoud Barazani attacked the offices of the main opposition bloc- Goran (the Change List)- in towns like Soran, Shawlawa, Dohuk and Arbil.

Goran's TV station (KNN) was banned from broadcasting, whereas an independent station- Nalia Radio and TV (NRT) – saw its offices attacked and burned down by a team of fifty armed men. Although KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih later claimed that nine people were arrested for this incident (two of whom were members of a counter-terrorism squad), no evidence has emerged of a trial.

By mid-March, as the opposition called for early elections and then a boycott of the KRG because of a no-confidence vote that was rejected by the parliament, Kurdish government officials began to declare publicly their willingness to listen to the protestors' demands. Barazani affirmed that he would issue a 7-point reform program that promised early elections and legal action against members of the security forces who had fired on protestors.

Yet none of these proposed reforms has been implemented. Tired of the daily gatherings in Saray Square, the ruling authorities acted decisively in mid-April to silence the protestors for good. On April 18, a rally held at Salah al-Din University in Arbil was swiftly broken up, leaving 22 wounded in clashes as journalists and bystanders with cameras were attacked and chased away by the police. The next day, security forces, anti-riot police and Peshmerga militiamen swiftly moved into Saray Square to clear the public space of all protestors, besides breaking up a march that was heading towards Sulaymaniyah's main court.

The Governorate of Sulaymaniyah then issued a ban on all "unlicensed demonstrations" and the security committee vowed to end further protests. The KRG proceeded to cut the budgets of all opposition parties, such that they have now been reduced to holding meaningless talks on power-sharing with the ruling coalition in the KRG.

Thus, by the start of May, the protests were all over, stamped out by authoritarian measures that have differed little from those of other governments in the Middle East and North Africa. More recently, human-rights organizations like Amnesty International have raised concerns over attacks on lawyers who have campaigned on behalf of protestors injured or killed over the two months of unrest.

Where are the likes of Jeffrey Goldberg to call on Iraqi Kurdistan to live up to its public image as a healthy liberal-democracy? Since this story has gone unnoticed in the international press, the only real coverage one can find exists on Joel Wing's blog Musings on Iraq, online Kurdish publications such as AK News, and a Facebook group known as "Kurdistan Jasmine Revolution."

Even so, the illiberal and anti-democratic trends of the KRG should have been apparent long ago in its treatment of minorities. Elements of the Palestinian Authority routinely deny historical Jewish connections to the land of Israel. In a similar vein, the KRG has falsely tried to portray Kurds- rather than the Assyrians- as the true indigenous inhabitants of northern Mesopotamia and southern Anatolia. For example, the KRG wrongly claims that Kurds founded Arbil, whose name means "four gods" in Old Assyrian. The town had existed for thousands of years before the coming of the Kurds.

Besides the promotion of pseudo-history, the KRG, autonomous since the end of the First Gulf War, passed a resolution in October 2002 to legalize the confiscation of Assyrian land and property by the Peshmerga, and has made efforts to marginalize the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), with security forces firing on and killing ADM election workers in 2005. Other minorities like the Yezidis and Shabaks, neither of whom identify as Kurds but are not recognized as distinct ethno-religious groups in the KRG's constitution, have faced similar problems. The leader of the Yezidi Progress Movement- Wa'ad Hamad Matto- remains in jail without trial for refusing to submit certain Yezidi communities in the Nineveh plain to Kurdish control.

Owing to the lack of foreign attention, the ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan feel no outside pressure to initiate truly liberal-democratic reforms and desist from their cultural imperialism, but are preoccupied with clinging to the power base they have maintained for 20 years through familial and tribal connections. The sooner the outside world and foreign governments wake up to all this, the more likely it is that the Kurdish authorities will learn the importance of government accountability.



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