April 18, 2011

The Middle East Uprisings and the Specificities of the Events in Iraqi Kurdistan - By Falah Moradkhin

The Beginnings

On February 17th, a gathering was organized in Sulaimaniah to congratulate the people of Egypt and Tunisia for the toppling of the Mubarak and Ben Ali regimes.

After two hours, a number of youths inspired by similar actions in the Arab world set out to gather in front of the main office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Suddenly, a young guy was hit by a stone thrown from the party building. Other young people started retaliating, threw stones and broke the windows of the office. The guards then started shooting life rounds, killed a 14-year-old and injured many others.

Two hours later, an organized military force (“Zeravani”, affiliated with the KDP) entered the city and threatened to launch wider scale attacks.  On the same day, the speaker of the party announced that the KDP is “sacred”, and the “hands of those who attacked will be severed”. The following days (19th and 20th of February), large demonstrations took place in order to condemn those acts of violence. These demonstrations were again answered with bullets, only this time by the forces of the other partner of the ruling coalition in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). It resulted in several casualties and hundreds of injured.

Shortly after, the headquarter of the NRT satellite TV channel was looted. The channel was new and had gone on air only days before. It was the only station providing live coverage of the events. In the town of Kalar, another local radio station was attacked and all equipment and furniture destroyed. These attacks were clearly attempts to silence those who have a different opinion and an independent view on what was going on.

Since February 21st, the demonstrations have continued. So far, 9 people have been killed and more than 200 people injured. Hundreds have been temporarily arrested. Over the weeks, scores of journalists were intimidated, attacked, threatened, terrorized with death threats and their cameras and recorders destroyed.

A Region Under the Grip of Two Parties

In 1991, the Kurdish people revolted against the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. This rebellion put a partial end to the dominance of the Baath regime in the region that ruled with iron and fire since 1968. The seeds of a semi-autonomous region were planted at that time. The KDP and the PUK were leading powers among many other political parties that played a crucial role in resisting the Baath regime in Kurdistan. The first elections for parliament were implemented in 1991. They should create a government for the region. In the aftermath of that election, a civil war erupted between the KDP and PUK which resulted in the killings of nearly 11,000 people, thousands of injured and disappeared, and huge violations of human rights. In 1996, the KDP with the help of Saddam Hussein was able to control the capital Erbil. Since then it became the major political power in the region.

KDP and PUK became part of the problems facing the region since its establishment. Despite that, fearing the return of the Baath regime rule, the people of Kurdistan were forced to accept the misconducts of those two parties. In 2003, through the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime by the coalition forces, that threat was removed forever. The new situation brought fresh opportunities to the Kurdish people and made them confident to achieve their aspirations . But unfortunately, due to the new threat of terrorism and the old one of interference by neighboring countries, the hopes of the people were thwarted again.  Instead of economic development and the building of a democratic state, the ruling parties focused more on military upgrading and militia forces consolidation. On the other hand, civil society organizations began to grow, free media prospered and an active opposition developed. In the last elections (July 25th, 2009), the opposition was able for the first time to win 35 of the 111 seats of parliament. Since then, a new history in the region unfold.

Understanding the Current Situation

In my discussions with our international partners and friends, I recognize that our specific demands and criticisms remain quite unclear. The Middle East is huge and Iraqi Kurdistan is only an inconsiderable player in the midst of Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and Iran. 

Maybe it appears inappropriate to some that we are revolting against our Kurdish rulers while the Kurds in Syria, Iran and Turkey are struggling for their basic cultural and national rights.

But people in Iraqi Kurdistan have suffered much from violations of human rights and serious limitations of freedoms. People accused the ruling parties of serious offenses, however there was no solid evidence to prove those claims. After February 17th, some facts were brought to light:

  1. All political powers in the region are monopolized by the two families (Barzani and Talabani). On the surface, those two families operate through their political parties (KDP and PUK respectively), and the latter is effectively used by the former. The families entered into a “strategic agreement” which in effect resulted in silencing every voice of discontent and led to the division of power and resources between them.

  2. The ruling families are not accountable to any rule of law in Kurdistan. The same goes for those affiliated with them. They can easily abuse the resources, laws, government, parliament, and courts for their own interests.

  3. There are no independent governmental, civil, legal and democratic institutions.

  4. There are many secret, security and military forces which are all operating outside the jurisdiction of the government. They are ready to assassinate, set on fire or intimate any person or agency defined as an enemy.

The Demands of the People

The demands since the start of the demonstrations were straightforward and simple. Any political system that had the slightest respect to the principles of human rights would have responded and fulfilled them immediately. The main demands by the demonstrators were as follows:

  1. to arrest those who have been convicted of the killings on February 17th

  2. to withdraw all military forces to the outside of the cities

  3. to apologize to the people

Since those demands were not answered by the authorities, they were expanded by some fundamental points. These were called the basic demands of the demonstrators:

  1. to put an end to political inheritance and family rule; to develop a democratic parliamentary system

  2.  to fight corruption and convict offenders

  3.  to end the influence and interference of the ruling parties/families on the military forces; to dismantle the control of the political parties over police and security apparatus

  4. to draft a constitution in the interest of the people

Again, those demands were not fulfilled and not even answered by the authorities. Therefore, the demonstrations entered a new stage, and calls for an overthrow of the regime came up. The demonstrators now demanded that the president of the region, the prime minister and the speaker of parliament should immediately resign. They asked for early elections and the establishment of a truly democratic state.

At the same time, the three opposition parties (Goran (“Change”), Islamic Union and Islamic Group) that have 35 seats in parliament, called on the government to resign and demanded an interim government to prepare for early elections.

The main problem the people are facing is that their movement is limited to the governorate of Sulaimaniah. Since February 25th, the KDP refuses permission for anyone to organize a demonstration in Erbil. In recent times, demonstrations have taken place everywhere in Iraq except for the two KDP-controlled cities of Erbil and Duhok. Many requests to the authorities in Erbil have been made to get permission for a demonstration according to the law, but all were turned down.

The bill to “regulate demonstrations” was signed into law by the president of the region, Massod Barzani. Civil society organizations at that time characterized it as a law to ban demonstrations, not to regulate it. They organized not less than 24 demonstrations all over the region to protest against it. The president of the region in response to the angry reactions indicated that if this law would prevent demonstrations, he himself would turn to the streets and demonstrate against it. Yet he is silent now.

Assuming control over the governmental institutions in Sulaimaniah governorate would be quite an easy task for the people, but people are aware that the same step in Erbil would be extremely difficult and could eventually lead to a situation comparable to Libya. Previous experiences with KDP and PUK support this concern.

One more time, by applying a cautious and sober-minded approach in this delicate situation, the people have proved that they are the ones who genuinely care for the long term interests of the region.


The demonstrations are continuing since more than two months now. The people know very well that if they stopped their activities, the authorities would resort to widespread operations of intimidations, killings and violations of basic human rights.

The people of Kurdistan are continuing the demonstrations hoping that they will achieve some essential points:

   The authorities and the rulers of the two parties recognize as legitimate the demands of the people and fulfill them and put an end to violence, intimidation, killings and extrajudicial arrest and detention.

  • A democratic system will be established in which parliament, government and legal authorities are active and independent.
  • The freedoms of speech, demonstration, media, association, and assembly will be respected.
  • The militarization of society will be stopped. Security and military forces will serve the people.
  • Constitution and laws will be put in service of the people.
  • Corruption will be prosecuted so that economy can prosper.

These items are part of a larger agenda of hope of our people. But for now, we wish that the regimes in Syria, Libya , Iran and Yemen follow soon the example of those in Egypt and Tunisia. This would increase the prospects for a more democratic Middle East in the future.

Falah Muradkhin is  project-coordinator for the relief organization Wadi.


Top of page

Share |