SULAIMANIYA – At least one person died and dozens were injured Thursday in Iraqi Kurdistan’s second largest city as angry protestors attacked the local headquarters of one of the two ruling Kurdish parties, while an opposition building was set ablaze in the other major Kurdish city.
The violence broke out in Sulaimaniya following a rally organized by a number of civil society groups to express solidarity with protestors in Egypt and Tunisia and protest the poor state of public services and corruption in the autonomous Kurdish region.
A curfew has since been imposed in Sulaimaniya since 7 pm Thursday, and there is an unusually heavy presence of police and security forces.
Hours after the attack on the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) building in Sulaimaniya, the local headquarters of Gorran (Change) opposition movement in Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital city, was set on fire.
A Gorran leader told IPS his group holds the KDP responsible for the attack on its Erbil branch.
Security forces in Erbil are mostly loyal to the KDP.
Meanwhile, the KDP suspects Gorran’s elements played a role on the attack on its building in Sulaimaniya.
Mohammed Tofiq, Gorran’s spokesman, said his party "has had nothing to do with the protests" in Sulaimaniya and the attack on KDP’s building.
"We are fundamentally against what happened today… If we wanted to organize protests we would have publicly done it," Tofiq said. He criticized the guards at the KDP’s building for shooting at demonstrators.
The KDP is led by Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq. KDP’s old rival and current ally, the patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is the other major ruling party in the Kurdish government. Jalal Talabani, the PUK’s head, is the president of Iraq.
Thursday’s incidents in northern Iraq broke out amid a wave of mass protests that has galvanized several Middle Eastern countries in the recent weeks, leading to the collapse of two governments in Egypt and Tunisia.
Iraqi Kurdistan has witnessed several demonstrations in the last few years where people protested corruption and mismanagement. A number of people were killed and injured during those protests as well.
The organizers of the Thursday rally in Sulaimaniya had called on the protestors to disperse after a few speeches were read out in line with the protest’s objectives. But tens of protestors continued marching toward nearby Salim Street, where a number of high-profile government and party buildings are based.
Upon arriving at the local headquarters of the KDP, the protestors started chanting slogans against Kurdish rulers. Minutes later they began throwing stones at the KDP’s building, shattering its windows.
Eyewitness accounts say panicking guards of the building started opening fire on the demonstrators. Sulaimaniya’s top health official told the local media that one person died and over 50 others were injured as a result of the shooting.
"I could hear the sound of bullets whizzing by my head. At that second I thought that I was going to die. They were shooting right into the crowd," Karzan Kardozi, a blogger who was among the protesting crowd Thursday, told IPS. "We hid in a parking lot for about three minutes and they were still shooting."
"There should be an inquiry," Kardozi said. "Those who shot the people should be brought to justice or the government will further lose credibility with its people."
There are fears that increasing tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan might lead to serious instability, especially in light of the regional events and the prospect of further protests.
Many see Thursday’s demonstrations as an outburst of pent-up frustrations among sections of the Kurdish society toward the failure of Kurdish authorities to deliver in key areas such as providing services, combating what is often seen as rampant corruption and undertaking serious political reforms.
"The ruling establishment in Kurdistan has failed to carry out serious self-criticism, review of its action and take serious measures accordingly to address the public grievances," said Rahman Gharib, an activist who was among the protesters.
"The fact that there is widespread domestic discontent coupled with the current storm of protests in the region must have compelled the Kurdish authorities to meet public demands," he said.
Shortly after the bloody incident in Sulaimaniya, the KDP put out a statement saying "the security forces did not play their role adequately, the small number of guards protecting the (KDP)’s building had to defend themselves. Unfortunately, as a result a number of attackers were hit."
Unlike Erbil, most of the security forces in Sulaimaniya are loyal to the PUK.
Sulaimaniya, once a stronghold of the PUK, is currently dominated by the Gorran opposition movement. Inspired by the popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, Gorran issued a statement in late January calling for the dissolution of the Kurdish government and parliament.
That infuriated the governing parties, which accused the opposition group of attempting to launch a "coup" on the "legitimate" institutions of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The current Kurdish government and parliament were born out of elections in July 2009 that were largely endorsed as "free and fair" by the Iraqi electoral commission and international observers.
Many of Gorran’s current leaders occupied senior positions within the PUK but split from the group in 2006. Gorran’s top leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, was PUK’s number two for years.
The opposition occupies 26 seats in the 111-member parliament. The two ruling parties have 59 deputies in the chamber.
Many in Kurdistan have cautioned against any major protests, saying the situation in the autonomous region is essentially different from Egypt, Tunisia or other Arab countries.
The fact that Kurdistan is not an independent state has created fears that any major upheaval would practically spell the end of the Kurdish political entity in northern Iraq.
Such unrest also threatens to reverse the safety and increasing prosperity of Kurdistan, which over the past several years have distinguished it from the rest of chaos- stricken Iraq.
Internationally recognized "free and fair" elections, a relatively free media atmosphere and the presence of legal and government-paid political opposition parties distinguish Kurdistan significantly from most parts of the Middle East.
But growing social injustice, widespread corruption, family rule and nepotism have led to deep-seated anger and sense of exclusion among many people, especially the youth.
On Wednesday, demonstrators in the southern Iraqi province of Wasit stormed the building of the provincial administration and council. Clashes there left at least three people dead and dozens more injured.
(Inter Press Service)