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Iraq Report: August 11, 2006

August 11, 2006, Volume 9, Number 29

KURDS CALL FOR GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY. Demonstrations have broken out across Iraq's Kurdish region in recent days as residents protested what they claimed is rampant corruption and a lack of services provided by the newly formed government of the Kurdistan autonomous region.

Until recently, Kurdish towns and cities were not affected by the endemic fuel and electricity shortages that have plagued much of the rest of Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. That changed several months ago, prompting Kurds to begin staging organized demonstrations demanding government action.

Many Kurds have been quick to blame what they see as the indifference of the ruling parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), saying those in power are unaffected by the shortages because of their wealth and connections.

Dividing Up Power

While demonstrators have attempted to hold the government accountable, some say there is little that can be done to effect change. As the two main ruling parties, the KDP and PUK solidified their hold on power during their 12 years of self-rule before the fall of the Hussein regime. In the post-Hussein era, officials tied to the parties have grown wealthier and in some cases, more flagrant in their abuse of power, critics charge.

Democracy in the Kurdish north, once touted as the model to be emulated, suffered a setback in January 2005 when the KDP and PUK divided up parliament seats ahead of the local parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," January 28, 2005).

The continued widespread perception among the public that officials care less about their needs and more about lining their own pockets with lucrative business deals and other profitable endeavors has only exacerbated the divide between the people and their representatives.

Moreover, it has fueled a growing perception that only those with close ties to the ruling parties will reap the benefits of a decent education or career advancement based on credentials, rather than connections. Such frustration, observers argue, could lead to a massive brain drain from the region.

As reported on August 3, waves of young, educated Kurds have begun leaving the region for the West. The disillusionment of the youth, the website noted, has led them to believe that positive changes will not come their way.

Spreading Demonstrations

The latest demonstrations began on August 5 in Kifri, southwest of Al-Sulaymaniyah, and led to the arrest of 20 demonstrators. According to the Peyamner news agency, police began arresting the organizers of the demonstration after footage from the protest was broadcast on local television channels.

Demonstrators later staged a second demonstration outside the local administrative office to demand the release of their cohorts.

Other demonstrations then spread over the next two days to Chamchamal, Darbandikhan, and Shorish (Al-Sulaymaniyah). The Kurdish news agency Sot Kurdistan (Voice of Kurdistan) reported on August 7 that more demonstrations were being planned for Aqrah, Halabjah, Irbil, Kalar, Soran, and Al-Sulaymaniyah.

More than 2,000 protesters took part in the August 7 demonstration in Darbandikhan, Peyamner reported. According to the news agency, Kurdish police and security forces confiscated the camera of a journalist working for Zagros TV. "Only [PUK-owned] KurdSat TV and Aindah TV of [the] Garmiyan area were allowed to film," Peyamner reported.

The news agency also reported that independent journalist Amjad As'ad was arrested after he was caught filming the demonstration on his mobile phone. "Hawlati" reported that two of its journalists were also arrested.

Kurdistan Satellite Television, which is operated by the KDP, reported that journalists' cameras were confiscated.

According to "Awene," more than 50 demonstrators were arrested, and 11 injured, one critically.

Journalists Fight for Greater Freedoms

Kurdish journalists have accused the government of using a corrupt judicial system to "terrorize writers," as one journalist described it, after a series of arrests and trials earlier this year. "If we look at the court cases against writers and journalists in recent weeks and months, we see that none of the verdicts has been in favor of a journalist or writer. On the contrary, in all the cases, the officials have been the heroes.... This is a new trend in the officials' fights against writers and the continuation of the police...preventing people from holding pens," Sarwat Ali wrote in the May 30 edition of "Awene."

Kurdish intellectual Kamal Sayyid Qadir was jailed by the KDP last year for Internet articles he wrote criticizing Kurdish region President Mas'ud Barzani's administration. He was sentenced in December to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership." That sentence was thrown out and Qadir was sentenced at a new trial in March to 18 months in prison. One week later, regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani pardoned Qadir. Whether Qadir would have received a retrial, let alone a pardon, had there not been intense publicity surrounding his case is difficult to say.

At the local level, independent newspapers such as "Hawlati" have gone to great lengths to criticize the ruling parties in recent months, though not without repercussions. Two of the newspaper's editors were put on trial earlier this year on charges of defaming PUK leader Umar Fattah. The two men received suspended six-month prison terms. As in Qadir's case, the sentences would likely have been much harsher had there not been an intense international media campaign in their support.

Despite the crackdown on journalists in recent months, a number of independent newspapers and Kurdish websites have continued to highlight the restrictions placed on the media. Kurdish websites based abroad have proven invaluable to the campaign for greater press freedoms.

Growing Public Dissatisfaction

Recent examples of editorials marking the pages of Iraqi newspapers include a July 26 editorial published in "Hawlati," which pleaded with the region's ministers to "just once" try working as a traffic policeman, whose commands go ignored by officials in new cars who hurl trash at the officers; or teach in a sweltering classroom where there are no supplies or electricity. Try giving a lecture "on the sixth floor of a building without lifts or power. After that, make some notes about the resilient teachers and their salaries," the author wrote, referring to recent demands by academic and medical unions for salary increases.

Local media have also been quick to criticize the government for regularly claiming that demonstrations are carried out by "foreigners" or "saboteurs and rioters," rather than admit that public dissatisfaction is running deep these days. One example of this was the two parties' reactions to demonstrations that erupted in Halabjah this spring, which they blamed on foreigners. Dozens of protesters and members of the media were arrested (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," May 12, 2006).

In an editorial published in "Hawlati" on August 2, the newspaper claimed the Kurdish regional government, "from the day it began working, did not fulfill" its duty to provide for the people's basic needs. "There are lots of cars, but very bad roads. There are lots of electricity poles, towers, and cables, but no electricity. There is fertile land, but agriculture is destroyed."

Though public criticism has been met with stiff reaction from the government, Kurds continue to push for their rights and freedoms. The government's realization that it will be held accountable for its actions, or inactions, by a vibrant Kurdish press has led it to reconsider its response to public criticism.

For his part, Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Umar Fattah met with demonstrators from Shorish and Chamchamal on August 8 to discuss their grievances, the PUK's website announced the same day. Fattah vowed to look into their demands and said steps would be taken to improve basic services. At least for now, it appears that demonstrators' hopes for a more democratic Kurdistan may still be within reach. (By Kathleen Ridolfo. Originally published on August 9.)

IRAQI TRIBES MEET TO DISCUSS NATIONAL RECONCILIATION. A member of the higher committee for national reconciliation told "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" that tribal leaders met for the first time in Al-Mahmudiyah on August 9, the daily reported on August 10. The meeting included tribesmen from different ethnicities living in the area of Al-Mahmudiyah and Al-Latifiyah, south of Baghdad, Zakia Haqqi said. Meanwhile, the state-run daily "Al-Sabah" on August 10 quoted Haqqi as saying that a representative of about 1,000 former military officers has informed the prime minister's office that they are willing to join the reconciliation process. The daily cited sources close to the reconciliation committee as saying that four armed factions have joined the reconciliation process. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT DENIES FORMING MILITIA... Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, denied an August 8 report in London's "The Times" that claimed he is in the process of forming a militia, Al-Jazeera reported on August 9. The daily quoted a Sunni Arab who is considering joining the militia as saying that the militia will be formed from 350 former army personnel who will be trained, armed, and paid $700 per month by the Defense Ministry. "It'll be called a personal security guard give it official cover and secure funding, but on the ground it'll be a Sunni militia," he said. An unnamed official of al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party reportedly told the daily, "It's a very sensitive issue and I can't comment on it." Meanwhile, al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera in a telephone interview from Istanbul, where he is reportedly vacationing: "Violence should not be met with counterviolence.... We are working to disband the existing militias because they have become part of the current problem.... The solution is not to exacerbate the situation by forming new militias." (Kathleen Ridolfo)

...AS DEPUTY PREMIER CALLS FOR TALKS. Iraqi Sunni Arab Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i told Al-Sharqiyah television on August 9 that there is a need for Sunni and Shi'ite leaders to sit and discuss national reconciliation. Calling for a meeting between Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari, al-Zawba'i noted the need to change perceptions on both sides. "Everybody is looking to the other in a dark way," he said. "This [perception] should be corrected." Al-Zawba'i contended that outsiders have misrepresented the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association as an organization that supports violence. "We should admit that the [association] demands something that many Iraqis are calling for. This is democracy about which we speak," he claimed. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

ISRAELI DAILY SAYS IRAQ'S AL-MAHDI FIGHTERS JOIN HIZBALLAH. Several dozen members of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, have joined Lebanese Hizballah, Tel Aviv-based "Ma'ariv" reported on August 8, citing Baghdad security sources. The newspaper also claimed that Lebanese Hizballah has been "consistently operating in Iraq" over the past year, aiding Shi'ite militias based there. The report cannot be independently verified, though al-Sadr's aides have admitted that the cleric sent truckloads of humanitarian aide to Lebanon last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2006). Al-Sadr supporters have also staged demonstrations in support of Hizballah in Baghdad recently. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI MILITARY ASSUMES CONTROL OVER MORE AREAS. U.S. General George Casey, the commander of U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad announced in a joint statement on August 8 that the Iraqi military has assumed primary responsibility for security in the Salah Al-Din, Ninawah (Mosul), and Kirkuk governorates. The statement, posted on the coalition website, said the Iraqi army's 4th Division took control from the 101st Airborne Division in a ceremony the same day, which also marked the halfway mark of putting the Iraqi military in the lead for operations. "Five of the Iraqi army's 10 division headquarters, 25 brigade headquarters, and 85 battalions in the Iraqi army now have the lead for security responsibilities in their areas. Additionally, to date 48 of 110 Coalition Forward Operating Bases have been transferred to Iraqi control," the statement noted. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

SECURITY REPORTEDLY DETERIORATING IN IRAQI CITY. Half of the city of Mosul is now under the control of insurgents, "Al-Zaman" reported on August 7. "Half of Mosul has been in rebel hands for three days and there is no sign that the government has the ability to restore its authority," an unidentified governorate official told the daily. Local residents said that the insurgents have taken control over areas on the left bank of the Tigris River, which runs through the city, cutting of major roads to the Kurdish region in the north. Mosul police chief Wathiq al-Hamdani told reporters on August 6 that police killed some 20 insurgents in the previous three days. Al-Hamdani told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on August 7 that the security situation began to deteriorate on August 4, but that the situation is now under control and calm has been restored. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IFJ CALLS FOR UN INTERVENTION TO PROTECT JOURNALISTS IN IRAQ. In an August 7 press release, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called for international intervention to ensure the protection of journalists working in Iraq after another Iraqi journalist was gunned down the same day. Three Iraqi journalists were killed in apparent targeted assassinations last week. According to IFJ, 135 journalists and media workers have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. "The crisis of targeting journalists in Iraq has reached such proportions that the international community needs to react up to the level of the United Nations to put pressure on Iraq and the military authorities to provide more protection for journalists under attack," IFJ Secretary-General Aidan White said. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI FORCES TO TAKE CONTROL OF SECURITY IN DHI QAR GOVERNORATE. Iraqi security forces will soon assume responsibility for security in the southern Dhi Qar Governorate, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on August 6. Aziz Kadhim Alwa, who heads the governorate's security committee, said that Italian troops stationed there have determined that Iraqi security forces have received sufficient training and are capable of handling security for the entire governorate. There are currently some 1,600 Italian troops stationed in southern Iraq, which the Italian government hopes to withdraw by year-end. Iraqi security forces assumed responsibility for security in the Al-Muthanna Governorate last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2006). President Jalal Talabani announced last week that Iraqi forces will take control of security in all 18 governorates by year-end. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

U.S. MILITARY OPENS HEARING INTO AL-MAHMUDIYAH RAPE, MURDER CASE. A U.S. military hearing into allegations that four U.S. soldiers raped an Iraqi teenager and then killed her along with three members of her family opened in Baghdad on August 6, international media reported. Four witnesses testified in the hearing, including Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Kunk, the former battalion commander for the men charged, who said former soldier Steven D. Green was discharged from the army in May after a psychiatric evaluation. Green, the apparent ringleader in the attack, also suffered from combat stress, Kunk said. An unidentified Iraqi army medic who saw the scene at the girl's house told the hearing that he found her naked and burned body. The girl was shot in the face, he added. He also testified to seeing the bullet-ridden bodies of the girl's parents and sister. Special Agent Benjamin Bierce testified on August 7 about an interview he had with Specialist James Barker, one of the four accused, who told him the soldiers took turns holding down and raping the teenager before killing her and her family, Reuters reported. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

IRAQI GOVERNMENT REINSTATES 10,000 WORKERS. The government on August 6 reinstated 10,000 state employees dismissed from their posts by the de-Ba'athification Commission in 2003, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Some 8,000 of the workers will return to their jobs at the ministries of Interior and Defense, while another 1,800 will return to the Information Ministry. An estimated 120,000 Iraqis lost their government jobs under the de-Ba'athification process, Reuters reported on August 6. (Kathleen Ridolfo)