I wanted to write about some events today in Iraq related to the series of popular uprisings that are spreading throughout the Arab world. I manage some programs in Iraq and am currently in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, and the information contained in this diary is from our staff who have been monitoring the situation, as well as Kurdish and Arabic radio broadcasts. It is not sourced with formal news articles or accounts, but I believe the information to be accurate. Today, two protesters were killed in Sulaimaniyah, to my knowledge the first fatalities to have occurred in Iraq as a result of the pan-Middle Eastern revolution. The errors which led to this tragedy could spiral in the coming days. More demonstrations are expected tomorrow in Kurdistan and Baghdad.
Iraq is unique in many ways; unlike Egypt, it is a far more diverse country with much more pronounced regional, religious and ethnic differences. The motives behind the demonstrations, the participants and the reactions vary across the country, and there is not a unified movement for governmental change as there was in Egypt. Rather, the unifying thread behind these demonstrations is popular anger at corruption and the shortage of basic services.
The most serious demonstrations today were in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, in the north-east of the country. Kurdistan is by far the wealthiest region of Iraq, but the rewards of the region's long economic expansion are not spread evenly throughout the population. While the rich shop at Dubai-style mega malls and import Ethiopian women to clean their houses, others remain poor and live in unheated adobe homes or abandoned public buildings. Sulaimaniya still has frequent power shortages, which affect the poor only - the rich have generators. Wages are higher than in Iran, SE Turkey or Syria and nobody is starving, but it has been 20 years since the 1991 revolution which gave the Kurds an autonomous region, and popular anger is rising at the corruption and favoritism on the part of the two major political parties. If you are connected, you have access to credit, business opportunities, and can monopolize markets or obtain land. If you are not connected, or if you fought in the revolution but are from an unimportant family, chances are you are still poor.
The anger boiled over last year, when the provincial elections resulted in a surprise win for the "Change" (Goran) party in Sulaimaniyah, at the expense of one of the two old parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which suffered the loss of the city council and several seats in parliament. The PUK is not going to accept subordinate status and has been actively opposing Goran including investigating and charging some party members with crimes. There is another major party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has been in existence for decades, is more tribally-based, and is never tolerated much dissent in their part of the Kurdish region. The Change (Goran) party has only been able to compete in areas in which the PUK is the dominant party. However, the other major party - the KDP - is known for spectacular corruption, as well as its antipathy to the reform movement in general, and Goran in particular. The KDP controlled access to the Turkish border for years, and siphoned off millions in oil revenue. Most of the major new developments - the mega malls, the big hotels, the tremendous Beirut-style building boom - results from KDP diversion of oil money and the 17% of Iraq's federal budget which is allocated to the Kurdistan region, and from other forms of corruption. The KDP is intensely disliked in Sulaimaniyah. This sets the context for today's demonstrations.
The demonstration today was larger than those that have been occurring all week. They met near the main market, under the picture of Qazi Muhammed, the leader of the ill-fated Mahabad Republic, a Kurdish state in what is now Iran that lasted only two years at the end of WWII. The deeply religious Qazi Muhammed is almost obscured by billboards advertising all the consumer goods the poor can't afford, and video billboards with music videos. About 400 people gathered under these signs of consumer excess. One of them tried to light himself on fire - an obvious reference to Tunisia, but hardly a surprising tactic in a society in which at least a hundred young women burned themselves to death rather than submit to forced marriages last year.
The demonstration gathered steam and the people marched down the main street - Salim street - in a spontaneous parade. When they reached the KDP Party headquarters, they picked up stones and started knocking out the windows. Each political party maintains armed militias, and the KDP peshmerga stationed on the top of the building fired live rounds into the crowd, killing two people and wounding 47. This is a major, major incident. The KDP have not killed other Kurdish people since the "small" civil war in 1996 and the city is outraged. There had been no fatalities or even injuries before today, and Sulaimaniyah is now under a 7PM-7AM curfew.
Tonight, security forces loyal to the two major political parties (PUK and KDP) have surrounded Goran party headquarters in four cities, including Sulaimaniyah, Erbil (the Kurdish capital), Dohuk and Soran. Ironically, there is no evidence that the protesters were actually associated with Goran, and the two major political parties will probably seize upon the demonstrations as an excuse to try to shut down the reform movement. We will see what tomorrow brings, but more demonstrations are expected in Kurdistan.
Before moving on to the rest of Iraq, permit me a little more analysis. The Kurds are not Arabs and most of those demonstrating today cannot understand Al-Jazirah. Most of them want nothing to do with the Arab World or Iraq for that matter. The political parties are unique to the Kurdish region, and the area has been functionally independent for two decades. But the message of Egypt is spreading, and these demonstrations are definitely related to what is going on elsewhere in the region. Of course the Kurds pay attention to the Green demonstrations in Iran and the Kurds are all sympathetic to the Iranian protesters.
The main point is this: Throughout the middle east, the poor and the disenfranchised are reaching a boiling point. The dramatic success of the Egyptian revolution is even influencing people who do not speak Arabic. That's fascinating in many ways, because the Kurdistan Region is not as isolated from the rest of the Middle East as many of the Kurds would like to believe, and also because this area is dramatically wealthier than Egypt (or Baghdad for that matter). The leadership here was unprepared and not expecting the demonstrations to spread here. However, they will probably draw the wrong conclusions. Rather than addressing corruption, they will most likely use the unrest as an excuse to shut down reform political movements, and shrink what is currently a fairly open and robust media sector.
Elsewhere in Iraq...
Today saw significant protests in Hilla, a large city in Babylon province just south of Baghdad. Hilla has long been one of the more stable cities in Iraq, having escaped the worst of the recent civil war and having experienced a very light foreign presence during the occupation. A city of nearly 2 million, it is a pretty big place - majority Shia' but with a small Sunni population. The demonstrations in Hilla are sparked by unemployment, rising food prices and especially lack of electricity. Hilla is one of the poorer cities in Iraq. Tonight I heard on the radio that the Iraqi Government posted tanks near public buildings and has warned demonstrators not to demonstrate tomorrow. The demonstrators do not appear to be linked to any specific political party - Hilla by and large is considered an area of support for Prime Minister Maliki and the Dawa' party, who returned to power after a disputed election and a long process of building enough of a coalition to form a government. I am somewhat surprised by the non-political nature of the demonstrations in Hilla, because my default suspicion is that the Sadr Movement will take advantage of dissatisfaction with the government to push its agenda and obtain power. But I am having to rethink my assumptions about these demonstrations.
Our attorney in Baghdad is visiting for meetings and gave us a rundown on Baghdad. There have been daily demonstrations of various sizes for more than a week, and a large one is planned for this Friday. The protests seem mostly spontaneous, not organized, but draw largely from middle class and educated Iraqis rather than from the vast (mostly Shia') slums in the east of the city. Many of the demonstrators would have supported the more secular alternative, Ayad Allawi, in the last election. But this appears not to be an organized effort by any political party. I think the demonstrations will grow ominous if evidence appears that they are being organized by Muqtada al-Sadr, who has recently returned from Iran, who is an unstable member of Maliki's coalition, and who intends to challenge Maliki for political power. I keep writing about Sadr, because he remains the wild card in Iraqi politics. He is unacceptable to moderate Shia', to the Kurds, and to the Sunni community and any attempt at a Sadrist coup or power grab could easily plunge Iraq back into civil war. So far, the lack of demonstrations in Sadr City and the slums is actually a good thing, in my opinion, because the last thing Iraq needs right now is a repeat of the bloodshed in 2006. However, there remains an undercurrent of violence. Our attorney lives in a predominately Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, populated by professionals, most of whom are non-political. In the last week, seven of his neighbors have been assassinated by men using silencers, usually near their houses. This attorney has parked his car in a different neighborhood to make it appear that he is not at home, and varies his travel schedule so that he cannot be tracked. Nobody knows who is behind the assassinations, but it is possible that it is the Sadrists as the residents of this neighborhood are secular, Sunni and middle class.
This attorney will join the demonstrations on Friday. We worry about him - he has children, and for reasons I will not describe here, he is a person that is easily recognizable. I don't think that the government will fire on the demonstrators, but the safest thing to do in Baghdad, still, is to keep one's head down.
Finally, there have been major demonstrations in Basra, in far southern Iraq. Basra is nearly entirely Shia' and the demonstrations there draw people from a wide range of political perspectives. As is the case in Baghdad and Hilla, they do not appear to be associated with any particular political party. In the far south, the demonstrations are mostly about the lack of public services - garbage pickup, water, electricity, schools. Our attorney from Basra is here as well, and he will return and protest this next week. He's a non-believer who likes a beer from time to time, and feels somewhat alienated from the rather more religious atmosphere in Basra, and I suspect that he represents a great many Iraqis who simply want to go outside and holler at the authorities. One of the striking things about the demonstrations in Baghdad, Hilla and Basra is that they are drawing so many people who would be considered middle class - people with educations, often politically moderate, who are simply fed up with conditions, corruption, ineffective government and deferred dreams.
My heart is with them, but my more rational self worries that they will not achieve their goals and may be at risk. On the one hand, Iraq needs stability right now and violence always remains just under the surface. There are actors who can manipulate these demonstrations to have a go at their enemies, and in a society as fragmented as this one, things can spiral out of control so easily. Everyone is exhausted by the violence and fears its return. I don't see any program for replacing the government arising out of these demonstrations, and I fear overreaction on the part of the authorities. But as we have seen in Egypt, nobody should think that the peoples of the Middle East lack courage. They feel that now is the time to put pressure on the government for concessions, even though nobody feels that the government will fall as a result.
On the other hand, we are witnessing the equivalent in the Middle East of the revolutions throughout Europe in 1847, when people rose and attempted to overthrow conservative, repressive states and hereditary privilege. I cannot fault the Kurdish protesters for their anger at the corruption and waste of what was once their revolution. I cannot fault people like our dear attorney in Baghdad who wants to go out into the street and just yell at anyone who will listen "Enough of the stupidity!" "Enough of the corruption!"
Perhaps the lesson of Egypt, in Iraq at least, is that the large numbers of people who are not particularly political or involved in militias, want the government to hear loudly and clearly that they expect accountability, and that they are neither passive nor blind. That is as good a message as any, and while I fear more violence, I wish for them the best. Never doubt the courage of individuals, or the fact that people here wish for some degree of control over their lives and fate just as people anywhere.
I will turn in pretty soon so apologies if I don't stick around too long for comments.