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 Renewed protests by Iraqi Kurds? Not if Facebook is the ‘New Tahrir Square’ 

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Renewed protests by Iraqi Kurds? Not if Facebook is the ‘New Tahrir Square’  17.2.2012 
By Zanko Ahmad - Sulaimaniyah 

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Since last February, till middle April 2011, thousands of protesters gathered daily in Sulaimaniyah and other parts of Kurdistan against corruption and the lording over Iraq's Kurdistan region by two main parties KDP and PUK. Kurdish protestors demand the ouster of the local Kurdistan government KRG and president Massoud Barzani, calling for improving services and living conditions and fighting corruption. See Related Links
 
February 17, 2012

SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — On the anniversary of protests in Iraqi Kurdistan that claimed at least ten lives, social media sites have been trying to inspire further demonstrations. Observers fear that if protests do occur, there will be renewed violence.

On Friday the city of Sulaimaniyah commemorates the first anniversary of popular protests that rocked the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan last year. During the protests, around ten people were killed and hundreds injured and as the anniversary of the first of the protests on Feb. 17, nears, many are asking whether there will be more violence in the streets, in this, generally the most secure region in Iraq.

Popular protests began in February last year when some of the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan began a march to demonstrate solidarity with the people of Tunisia and Egypt. However when the marchers reached central Sulaimaniyah, they began to formulate other demands with more local relevance, such as governmental reform.

Becoming angry, the demonstrators began throwing rocks at the offices of the political party there. Security forces eventually opened fire on the protestors with live ammunition and the first protestor to be killed was a local teenager called Rizwan Ali. Feb. 17 is also considered a commemoration of his death.

As the anniversary draws near though, the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan seem relatively calm. However where things are not calm, are online. Although there don’t seem to be any real life attempts to spark a protest right now, social media websites like Facebook seem to be doing their best to foment more of a Kurdish youth revolution.

The “Feb. 17” Facebook page is one of the most popular pages among local youth; it gained 45,000 “Likes” within a few short weeks. And if that page is to be believed, then there are demonstrations planned right around the region. The administrators of this Facebook page have remained anonymous but they are asking protestors to gather at all the different Tahrir Squares in Kurdistan on Feb. 17. Tahrir means “freedom” or “liberation” in Arabic and for a variety of reasons, many towns have a square named like this.

Should the protests be halted before they have even begun, the Facebook page administrators suggest that “they will wear black clothes and put red cloth wristbands to commemorate the occasion”. The page has plenty of comments on it, including some from passionate young people who say that, this time they will continue to demonstrate against the local government, which the page claims has lost its legitimacy, until they die if necessary.

Several other Facebook pages are trying to inspire similarly passionate feelings and protests. One page, named “Spontaneous Protestors”, has written slogans like: “Today Facebook, Tomorrow Tahrir Square”.

That page is also urging opposition forces in Iraqi Kurdistan to marshal their supporters to take part in anti-government demonstrations.

Generally power in the semi-autonomous state, which has its own borders, military and separate government, is shared between two major parties in the region - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In practice the region is basically split into two separate zones of influence,
www.ekurd.net with local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk controlled by the KDP and the Sulaimaniyah area mostly administered by the PUK.

Opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan include two main Islamic parties and the Movement for Change party (mostly known as the Change party), which broke away from the main political parties in the region in 2006, demanding an end to corruption and nepotism among the current leaders.

However up until now, the opposition politicians in the region have not declared any intention to demonstrate. That is despite the fact that they do keep calling for reform in the local government.

For example, in January 2011 the Change Movement issued a statement containing seven points, where, among other things, they demanded the dissolution of the Kurdish parliament, new elections and a new constitution. Some see this as continued tacit support for any demonstrations on Feb. 17.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union’s position is not all that different. “The peoples’ patience has limits,” Salahuddin Bahauddin, the secretary-general of the Islamic Union, said on Feb. 6 this year. “If the authorities do not resolve their problems and perform the needed reforms, the people will not have mercy and will not forgive these authorities.”

Meanwhile Dlair Abdul-Khaliqi, who speaks for a collective of Sulaimaniyah university students who were very active in organising protestors early in 2011, says a new wave of demonstrations cannot be ruled out altogether.

“The demands made last February are still the same and nothing has changed,” Abdul-Khaliqi said. “There’s no sign of reform and the killers of the protestors have not been brought to justice. So a new wave of protests could erupt at any time.”

Abdul-Khaliqi added that he would prefer it if demonstrations were peaceful this time but that, “no one could tell how things will develop”.

According to information obtained by Niqash, the security forces in the region have been placed on a state of general alert. The city of Sulaymaniyah, which was the centre of some of the biggest protests in 2011, is on particularly high alert.

The government of Iraqi Kurdistan will apparently not allow any unauthorized demonstrations to take place. If they do, the authorities will take what government spokesperson Mohammed Khoshnaw describes as “firm action”.

These kinds of statements have been seen by protestors as something of a threat of violence, similar to last year. Which is also why many believe there won’t be any demonstrations; they think the demonstrations will remain confined to the virtual worlds of Facebook and other social media.

This is what Ismail Abdullah, a protestor who is well known for his involvement in demonstrations, expects. Because of what he calls the “authorities’ oppressive actions” he says Facebook is the new Tahrir Square.

However at the same time, Abdullah also points out that “last year’s demonstrations were spontaneous and totally unplanned. So really, nobody can predict exactly what will happen this year.”

Since February 2011, till middle April 2011, thousands of protesters gathered daily in Sulaimaniyah and other parts of Kurdistan against corruption and the lording over Kurdistan region by two main parties KDP and PUK. Kurdish protestors demand the ouster of the local Kurdistan government KRG, calling for improving services and living conditions and fighting corruption. 

After 62 days of protests, the Governorate of of Sulaimaniyah has banned unlicensed demonstrations in the city. Heavy Kurdish forces deployed in Sulaimaniyah city to prevent any demonstrations, and occupied the city center and other parts of Sulaimaniyah. The Security Committee in Sulaimaniyah banned on April 18 all sorts of protests.

Most of the demonstrators opposed Massoud Barzani, and the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party KDP. Ten people were killed and more than 700 others wounded and 220 more have been arrested in clashes between demonstrators and Kurdish security forces during a wave or protests that swept Sulaimaniyah. The Kurdish security forces (Asayish) arrested and tortured a lot of activists and journalists.

The protesters demand the Kurdish government and parliament resign to give way for “early transparent elections”. They complain about “monopolizing the economic and political authority,” by the two major parties of Kurdistan. Many observe allegiance to either of the two ruling patties a must to get employed and hence were deprived of the right. Kurdistan suffers from electric power deficiency but after almost 20 years of semi autonomy.

For decades, the KDP of regional president Massoud Barzani and the PUK of Iraq's President Jalal Talabani have lorded over the region.

Massoud Barzani and his relatives control a large number of commercial enterprises in Kurdistan-Iraq, with a gross value of several billion US dollars. The family is routinely accused of corruption and nepotism by Kurdish media as well as international observers.

Iraq's Kurdish regional government has near total autonomy and is funded by a share of the country's oil revenue. The two parties that share power each command former guerrilla militias that have been given the status of regional security forces.

Earlier Massoud Barzani told an Italian newspaper that if 50,000 Kurdistan citizens require him to step down, he will. Afterwards, the opposition parties led a signature campaign and reportedly collected even more votes to oust the president. However, the fate of those signatures is still unclear.

Korek, owned by a nephew of Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), was established in 2001 in the region and has 3 million customers, while Kuwait's Zain started operations in the zone last October.

All three firms secured $1.25 billion licenses each to operate in Iraq in 2007.

ekurd.net contributed to this report
Niqash part of this report by Zanko Ahmad


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