x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Kurds angry at corruption they see in their own government

In northern Iraq, the Kurds have considerable autonomy. yet, it too has seen protests during the Arab Spring. Citizens complain that even fellow Kurds are prone to corruption and abuse when they gain power.

A photograph of Serkio Mahmoud Imam hangs above the head of his parents in their home. The teenager was killed during protests. Lee Hoagland / The National
A photograph of Serkio Mahmoud Imam hangs above the head of his parents in their home. The teenager was killed during protests. Lee Hoagland / The National

SULAYMANIYAH // One of Zahid Mahmoud Imam's six sons was shot to death during anti-government protests in Iraqi Kurdistan this year. The sacrifice was one the father was willing to make.

"If the protests begin again, not just me, all of my family are prepared to be killed in the demonstrations to get freedom," said Mr Iman, a retired Kurd aged 62. "The price is not too high - for democracy."

Mr Imam was speaking at his home in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan's second largest city and the site of weeks of protests against the Kurdish regional government.

For decades, Iraqi Kurds have been demanding that they be allowed to rule themselves. In northern Iraq, they have considerable autonomy. Yet, it too has endured protests during the Arab Spring. Citizens complain that even fellow Kurds are prone to corruption and abuse when they gain power.

"I don't want a government like this, because they just serve themselves, not the society," Mr Imam said. "Some people have everything, but most have very little. And if people demonstrate for their rights, they respond with bullets."

As he spoke, Mr Imam sat underneath a large portrait of a 16-year-old boy emblazoned with the words "Martyr: Serkio, a student in the fourth stage".

He said his son was hit in the mid-section by a live bullet fired by Kurdish security forces on February 19 and died in hospital later that day. Eight civilians and two members of the security forces died in Sulaymaniyah and nearby villages during the protests.

Kurdistan was not the only region of Iraq where disaffected citizens took to the streets. February 25 was a "day of rage" in cities all over the country, and at least 20 people were killed nationwide.

The violence eased when the president, Nouri Al Maliki, called for ministers to reform within 100 days or face the sack. His threat has produced little change, but most of Iraqis outside Kurdistan are preoccupied by the imminent withdrawal of US troops and the chaos that might follow.

In Kurdistan, Mohammed Tofiq, a spokesman for Goran, the Change Movement, said the Kurds were angry about the regional government's corruption, nepotism and poor service. He said citizens were dismayed that the two largest Kurdish political parties monopolised the economy.

The Iraqi Kurdistan region is governed by a coalition of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Together they hold 59 of the regional parliament's 111 seats.

"The corruption and the mismanagement of the region is becoming a threat, so we have to change," Mr Tofiq said. He said foreign powers, such as the US, "don't give a damn about what happens here" because they want to portray Kurdistan as a stable democracy to justify the invasion of Iraq.

The first rally on February 17 began as a show of support for Egypt and Tunisia's revolutions. It was at a major junction in the city centre known as Sera Square. The protesters vented their frustration by swarming the nearby branch of the KDP. Witnesses say some of the crowd threw rocks at the building and the guards responded with gunfire, killing one protester.

Mr Tofiq said the KDP had few supporters in the city and its undercover agents incited the crowd to violence so troops would have an excuse to respond with force. He said the party wanted to show the population that it was not afraid to attack citizens in areas where it was weak, and thereby send a message to its strongholds in Erbil and Dohuk, "telling them that if we can fire at people in Sulaymaniyah, imagine what we will do to you".

Shirwan Hamid, a spokesman for the PUK, which has its headquarters in the city, said the crowd started the violence at an illegal demonstration. He said opposition parties - the Change Movement and two Islamist groups - used the citizens' grievances to try to seize power after failing to get a majority in the 2009 parliamentary election.

The Change Movement split from the PUK in 2006 "and now they want to take their revenge", he said.

Mohammed Hakim, the spokesman for another party that supported the protesters, the Kurdistan Islamic Group, denied that the opposition started the protests or used the situation for political gain.

"We don't have a reliable electricity grid or a water supply; we have problems with everything," Mr Hakim said. "We are with the people against corruption and in favour of freedom."

After a rally at Sera Square on February 19, about 25 activists gathered at a shisha cafe, Vino's Casino, to organise a prolonged campaign, said one of the attendees, a lawyer named Karwan Kamal. The protest committee included teachers, writers, students and businessmen.

"We were not politicians. We were just people with requests," Mr Kamal said. Their demands included an end to corruption, the release of detained protesters, justice for the victims' families, an end to harassment of protesters and the withdrawal of the KDP and the PUK militias - the Peshmerga - from cities. The committee collected money from demonstrators and published a daily newsletter. On March 5, the group set up camp in Sera Square and played films to entertain about 500 people who intended to stay the night.

About 2am, masked security forces broke up the crowd with batons, Mr Kamal said. "People were panicking, running away from the square, and they arrested about 40 people."

As soon as the tents were evacuated, authorities set them alight, he said. Nonetheless, the protesters soon returned.

Masrour Barzani, a leading member of the KDP and son of the president, said the protests were in a "very limited area". He said the three opposition parties leading the protest collectively had more than 500,000 votes "but not even their own supporters came to the streets to support their way of raising their demands".

The government had responded to the protesters' demands by negotiating with the political parties, he said. The regional government had been "very responsive", he said.

"I don't think that anybody could deny that there is a certain level of corruption in Kurdistan, and I'm sure it's everywhere else too. I think, in some cases, it's highly exaggerated."

Daily rallies centred on Sera Square continued, where Rebin Hardi, a well-known author, regularly addressed the crowd.

He said he told them: "If you want to make a basic change in society, you have to make it peacefully, because if we change it by force we will be like them."

By April 19, security forces had regained control of Sera Square and the provincial governorate had banned unlicensed demonstrations, effectively snuffing out the protests.

On the same day, Mr Hardi was to speak at a rally in front of the court to demand justice for the victims. When he arrived, he was bundled into a bus with three other men and driven to a detention centre. He said he was severely beaten, showing pictures taken afterwards of his bruised arm, leg and face.

Mr Hardi was released later that day, but he is still defiant.

"The protesters sent a clear message to the authorities. When we, writers and journalists, spoke out in the past, it was one by one.

"Now many people have made an alliance against corruption," he said.