Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Iraqi Kurdistan, Known as Haven, Faces Unrest

By JACK HEALY and NAMO ABDULLA - The New York Times


Protesters took to the main square of the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, Iraq, on Tuesday. Antigovernment demonstrations there have been going on for a week. Photo by Ayman Oghanna


SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — This is a place that calls itself “the other Iraq,” a haven of social and economic stability that largely escaped the bloodshed and chaos that have ravaged the rest of the nation.

But over the past week a wave of sometimes violent unrest has shaken Kurdistan, posing a rare challenge to the political powers that have led Iraq’s mountainous north for decades, during and after Saddam Hussein.

Thousands of people — many of them university students — have been filling the central square here to wave Kurdish flags and voice the calls for change that echo those ringing across northern Africa and the Middle East. The protests here, reflecting a long-festering anger with government corruption and partisan politics, have grown larger in recent days, and have support from this eclectic city’s legions of poets, writers, artists and unions.

“Everyone is angry,” said Asos Hardi, manager of Awena, one of the few newspapers not tied to one of the region’s political or religious parties. “Everyone from the taxi driver to the shopkeeper to intellectuals and students.”

But supporters and opponents of the demonstrations — while accusing each other of provoking the bloodshed — do share one common concern: that the unrest could deepen, driving foreign investment and visitors away from one of the most stable corners of Iraq.

“It is a danger to Kurdistan,” said Hassan Jabari, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, one of the ruling parties that has drawn the demonstrators’ anger. “We have calm, stability, reconstruction. Those are all under threat.”

On Wednesday, a police officer in Kurdistan was shot and killed in a confrontation with protesters in Halabja, near the Iranian border, according to health officials there. It was the first government fatality since the clashes began last week.

Three protesters have also been killed and scores have been wounded, and demonstrators say dozens of people have been detained.

Attacks on a privately owned television station and the offices of an opposition political party have stoked fears that Kurdish leaders, backed by armed supporters and security forces, are using the upheaval to attack their opponents and tear the scabs off old animosities lingering from a civil war in the 1990s.

The unease is growing here as thousands of Iraqis plan to fill the streets of Baghdad and other cities on Friday for a “day of rage” to protest the country’s shoddy public services, widespread corruption and tenuous security situation.

In Kurdistan, the catalyst for the popular anger came last Thursday, when hundreds marched to the local offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which is led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the semiautonomous region. After protesters pelted the building with rocks, security guards opened fire, killing a 14-year-old.

For 30 years, the region has been largely dominated for by two groups: Mr. Barzani’s K.D.P. and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani. The parties, which control the regional government, hold sway over the local armed forces and the economy and provide subsidized food, money and work for thousands and thousands of Kurds.

“There is basically no private sector,” said Denise Natali, the Minerva fellow at the National Defense University and the author of “The Kurdish Quasi-State.” “The distinction between state and society is undeveloped. Here, you have a relationship of dependency, like one between a big daddy and child.”

Despite the turmoil, Mr. Barzani is in a relatively stable position with a strong base of tribal loyalties, and few people expect him to be toppled like the leaders of Egypt or Tunisia.

In Sulaimaniya’s packed central square, protesters said they wanted a larger voice in government.

While the throngs in the square chanted “Peace! Peace!” and picked up litter and danced together, the scene had darker moments. On Tuesday, two Kurdish politicians who tried to speak were chased through the streets. A Kurdish author who had supported Mr. Barzani (a popular target of scorn among the demonstrators) was booed and roughed up.

Many said they believed that the government would listen to their voices and make real reforms. But others had grimmer visions for the future.

“The region is going through radical change,” said Rebin Hardi, a Kurdish author with ties to the opposition. “I hope a political solution can be found. If not, there will be more violence. There could be a civil war.”

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