On 17 February, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, people came onto the streets of Sulaymaniyah, the second biggest city in Iraqi Kurdistan, to demand freedom, dignity, justice and basic services and an end to political corruption. Since then demonstrations have continued for more than 60 days, with people across the region supporting the demands.
They are protesting against the two parties which have ruled Kurdistan for the past two decades. After the uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Massoud Barzani, took control of the country, and, after a civil war between them ended in stalemate, divided it between them and have jointly ruled it ever since.
While they have been warmly received by western governments, keen to present Iraqi Kurdistan as an example of the success of their policy towards Iraq, they have enriched themselves and their parties as they have split Kurdistan’s resources and wealth between them. Talabani and his PUK followers take a cut of everything that goes through the south-east of the country, while Barzani and his KDP enjoy the same in their north western fiefdom. Government positions are exchanged to maintain this mutually beneficial consensus: Talabani is President of Iraq, Barzani president of Kurdistan. The current Prime-Minister is from the PUK, while the President of the Parliament is from the KDP. Two years ago it was the other way round. This continues down through everyday Kurdish life – getting a job in the public sector mostly relies on membership of one of the parties, depending on where you are for example – and opportunities for backhanders are increasing as more and more multinational companies enter the country, especially interested in the oil under its lands. Both parties owe their power to support from the US, who preferred them to the genuinely popular uprising that first forced Saddam out in 1991, and they have always been happy to go along with the lie that the 2003 war was for the benefit of the Kurdish people.
While this goes on the majority of people in Kurdistan suffer from mass unemployment and lack basic services. Women continue to be treated as second class citizens. Polygamy continues to be accepted and discrimination against women is widespread.
People have running water for one hour every two days and electricity seven hours a day. Infrastructure is crumbling and hospitals lack medicine and services.
Any dissent is punished severely by the parties’ militias, police and security forces, all of which operate according to their own agendas. Political and human rights activists have been killed and opposition parties banned. The media is heavily censored and those who step outside of these restrictions often pay a heavy price: last year for example Sardasht Osman, a journalist, was murdered by KDP militia for writing an article critical of Barzani and his family’s riches. Even though he was abducted in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses, no-one has been brought to justice for his murder. It is an open secret that elections are unfair and undemocratic: the PUK and KDP have made a pact not to stand against each other in their respective fiefdoms and people are threatened with loss of employment and food entitlements if they do not vote the right way. Opposition activists are arrested and detained. During the last election I was handing out leaflets criticising the PUK and the KDP in Sulaymaniyah when PUK militiamen stopped me and my two comrades, told us we were “making propaganda” and took us to the local jail for a few hours to make their point.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt encouraged people into action against this. There had been protests against the PUK and KDP before (even though a law was passed earlier this year banning demonstrations not sanctioned by the authorities) but the strength shown by people and workers in Egypt and Tunisia provided extra inspiration.
Repression against the demonstrations started immediately and has been severe. On the 17 February, 500 of the demonstrators, mostly young men, moved away from the main demonstration to protest directly outside the KDP’s offices. To scare them away, KDP militia took to the rooftops and started throwing stones at the demonstrators, one of whom was hit and knocked to the ground, blood flowing. The demonstrators responded with their own stones and the militia in turn responded with their guns, killing three young men. Repression has continued daily: activists have been arrested, kidnapped; some even had acid thrown in their faces by thugs sent by the government. One journalist critical of the regime woke up to find his car burnt out. In total nine people have been killed, including two children and more than 200 injured. Videos of the shootings, filmed on mobile phones and circulated on the internet to undermine the attempts of the KDP and PUK controlled media to brand the demonstrators trouble-makers can be found here and here.
The protests grew and people have continued to come out wherever possible onto the streets of cities and towns across Iraqi Kurdistan demanding change (less so in the capital Erbil and in the north-west, where the KDP have stopped people attending demonstrations outright by keeping the militia on the street constantly and closing the university). The main square in Sulaymaniyah has been renamed freedom square and people regularly sleep in it to keep it occupied. The demands of the demonstrators have become more radical, moving from demands for freedom, better services and an end to corruption, to the immediate resignations now being called for. Tahir Hassan, an activist who has been demonstrating every day said last week: “people in Kurdistan don’t just want to change the faces [of their rulers]. They have a problem with the whole system.”
But not a single demand of the uprising has been met and state brutality is increasing as the PUK and KDP remain, for the most part, free from international censure. The UK government has so far stayed silent, sticking to the western line that, since Saddam Hussein was forced out 20 years ago, Iraqi Kurdistan has become the model democracy for the rest of the Middle East to follow. The recent report by the UK’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Kurdistan, for example, celebrated its, “visible and dynamic economic, political and social progress” and called it “a major success story.” The report proves nothing other than the extent to which the group have been seduced by Talabani and Barzani. Its 19 pages, containing lavish praise for the achievements of the KDP and the PUK were written by the group’s administrator, Gary Kent, who, it turns out, is a paid employee of the Kurdistan Regional Government controlled by the KDP and the PUK! When a group of us involved in the Freedom Umbrella action group, which organises here in the UK in support of the uprising, went to parliament to make our grievances known, the police were called. Kent and his colleagues have been learning from his employers in Kurdistan.
The British support people in Kurdistan really want is from the people, not the government. International pressure was powerful in Egypt and Tunisia and people in Kurdistan are asking for the same support from freedom-loving people here. Come to one of our upcoming demonstrations or send a letter from your organisation, such as those already sent by the Unite and PCS unions. We need the same level of solidarity that was shown against the Iraq war to be shown now for the uprising of the people of Kurdistan and Iraq.
People in Kurdistan are fighting for freedom, equality, dignity and social justice, just like people in Tunisia and Egypt, and just like people in the anti-cuts movement in the UK. We are all in the same fight, to change the capitalist system, to stop people like Talabani, Barzani and Cameron, and to give power to the people and the workers, and to build a human society.
Dashty Jamal is secretary of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees. For details of demonstrations and events in solidarity with the uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan please see www.federationifir.com