A picture of Kurdish protest in Iraq

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Sulaymaniya, Kurdish Iraq: The 'White Group' of self-appointed peacekeepers kept security forces and protesters apart.

Canadians Allan Slater and Michele Naar-Obed of Christian Peacemakers sent this letter in Sulaymaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan following pro-democracy and independence demonstrations.

Wednesday was the 23rd anniversary of the poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein's forces on the people of Halabja, killing 5,000. Citizens of the region are taking to the streets.

March 12, 2011

The protest movement here in the Kurdish region of Iraq has never really taken off in the capital city of Erbil. The Peshmerga loyal to Barzani's KDP party have clamped down hard by breaking up meetings of even three or four people on the streets.

Soon after the protests started one doctor in Erbil tried to protest publicly against the corruption. He was immediately beaten and jailed then beaten some more. 

Fortunately for him, he also had Australian citizenship. 

The Australian government quickly intervened on his behalf and four days later he was released.

On the evening of March 11 we interviewed a woman who is one of the leaders of the protest movement here in Sulemaniya, a city of one million in the east of Iraqi Kurdistan. She and her husband are part of a group of about 55 people who have come together over the past weeks since start of the protests, meeting regularly to keep the momentum of the movement strong and non violent. One of their key decisions has been the open microphone that is available to any protester.

This group of 55 leaders are not speaking for the people but providing space for the people to speak for themselves.

None of the political parties have joined in the protests but support for some of the smaller opposition parties has been voiced from the microphone. The range of opinions within protest movement is broad, some wanting a complete overthrow of the government while others want the present government to reform itself. The leaders of the protest have no political interests beyond insuring that ordinary people who have been totally ignored in the political discourse here, are given a voice.

The protest organizer previously mentioned is sleeping in different places each night, for fear of arrest or worse. One could easily assume that the rest of the group of 55 leaders are doing the same thing.

She and her husband are both Canadian citizens. When asked if she thought that either one of them could expect the same sort of support from the Canadian government as the Australian government had provided to one of its citizens, she replied, "no, the Canadian government responses in these situations are too closely linked to the Americans."

Given the Canadian government's record the last few years in allowing Canadians of Middle Eastern descent to be tortured and killed in their countries of birth, I can only agree with that assessment.

People are pleading with us to get this story out to international media.

Protests at Azadi Square, March 13, 2011

The central square in Sulemaniya is officially known as Bar Darki Sara but the protesters here have renamed it Azadi Square, Azadi meaning freedom in Kurdish. Very quickly after the initial protests against the dictatorial government erupted in violence on Feb. 17 a steering committee was formed to give a voice to the people without giving the police and military groups any reason to attack the demonstrators. 

This steering committee calls itself the Azadi Square Interim Council(ASIC). This group had grown to about 55 people. Two of the leaders of this group are Nasiq Qadir, a sociologist and political researcher, and her husband Farouq Rafiq, a philosopher and intellectual. Both of these people are Kurdish born people who have lived, worked and studied in Canada, and have Canadian citizenship.

From the formation of ASIC the aim of the group has been to keep the protests peaceful, and to give all people an opportunity to say publically what they think about the political situation here.

The presence of this open microphone in Azadi Square is an open door on freedom that the Kurdish people have never before seen.

The decision to have this open microphone is extremely dangerous. Some people call for overthrow of the present government. This is the same government that can arrest, kidnap, disappear and torture opponents at will, given the close ties between the judiciary and the parties. Others are asking for handouts that no government could possibly agree to provide.

Some are calling for reform of the present political systems and improved services for the people. The ASIC has issued a list of 37 demands, which have at this time not been met. These demands relate to reforms to the political system and better living conditions for the Kurdish people. No support for any of the opposition parties has been offered because members of the ASIC believe that all political parties will have political agendas that are not the will of the people. The ASIC has called for a general strike but this has not received strong support.

As of Sunday, new developments seem to be on the horizon. Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq, a Kurd and leader of the PUK party, one of the two ruling parties of the Kurdish Region is in Sulemaniya. He has Peshmerga soldiers loyal to him on high alert, and there is pressure to put an end to this protest with violent force. At the same time the protesters are becoming more impatient and angry. One organizer suggested that there was a plan to take the square by force but a last minute meeting between Talabani and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden gave a reason to hold back to learn what that might have been accomplished in the meeting. Some of the protesters are even suggesting that ASIC leaders are dupes of the government, keeping them confined to Azadi Square where they cannot do anything beyond talk.

On most days, one talks with university students who are angry with their schools being closed. At this same time we are coming up to the 22nd anniversary of the gas attack on Halabja by Saddam Hussein on March 16. The ASIC leaders are promising an increased pressure on the government for reforms on that day. There is not much to indicate what this increased pressure might be. One suggestion has been to take this protest to the regional government seat in Erbil. This would likely lead to violent clashes because the other half of the coalition government, the KDP, led by Masoud Barzani has its main power base in the other two governorates of Erbil and Dohuk. The KDP forces have managed to quell even outbreaks of dissent there. The next few days could be very tense, and might well give some clear indications of eventual outcomes in this struggle for reformation of this oppressive and corrupt regime.

In the meantime the ASIC leaders are watching their backs. ASIC leaders are being threatened with arrests, kidnappings and death. The threats come from unknown sources that likely are secret service people for the governing parties.

The ASIC leaders sleep in different safe houses every night. Trusted volunteers surround these leaders in an attempt to keep them safe. They are taking considerable risks with their very lives. Most of the local Kurdish TV stations are party owned and in recent days the rhetoric coming from all of them has become increasingly violent, given to personal attacks and accusations that do nothing to address the issues being raised by the people. This sort of TV coverage could easily incite people to violence.

I am very aware that two of outspoken ASIC leaders are Canadian citizens. Farouq Rafiq has been threatened publically. At the very least I think the Canadian government has an obligation to ask the Kurdish regional government to allow peaceful protests in all areas of the region. The Canadian government definitely has a reason to be interested in the KRG because Canadian oil companies such as Heritage Oil, Addax Petroleum and others are very active here.

Canadians Allan Slater and Michele Naar-Obed are in the Kurdish region of Iraq for Christian Peacemakers.

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