Protests turn Iraqi Kurd city into military zone

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq Tue Feb 22, 2011 4:42pm EST

1 of 2. Iraqi Kurds protest to demand the ouster of the local government and better basic services in Sulaimaniya, 260 km (160 miles) northeast of Baghdad, February 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Stringer

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SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Long regarded as a cultural and economic hub in Iraq, Sulaimaniya has turned into a militarized city in recent days as thousands of people take part in anti-government protests under a heavy security presence.

Around 3,000 people took to the streets on Tuesday and thousands of students demonstrated at Sulaimaniya University in the latest round of rallies against corruption and the local government to shake the northern city.

Three people have died so far and more than 100 have been wounded in clashes between protesters and heavily armed militia forces linked to the two ruling parties of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

"This is the country of hungry people. They are not afraid of tanks," read some placards. Some protesters sang Kurdish nationalist songs.

As unrest spreads across the Arab world, Iraqis have also raised their voices, although their demands are more focused on ending food and electricity shortages and removing local officials, rather than seeking a complete change of government.

While protests have been scattered around Iraq, demonstrations in Sulaimaniya have been a daily occurrence since last Thursday, when protesters trying to storm the headquarters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party clashed with security forces.

Dozens of troops from the KDP, which is headed by Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, have been brought in from his stronghold of Arbil to protect the building, and the street on which it lies has been blocked off by military vehicles.

The dominant political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan -- Barzani's KDP and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- both have their own militias.

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Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed virtual independence under Western protection since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, attracting foreign investors as a relatively stable area compared to the rest of Iraq, which fell into sectarian warfare and a raging insurgency following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The recent protests have shut down businesses and restaurants, raising concerns amongst the ruling and opposition parties, which met on Monday but were unable to find a solution to defuse tensions.

"Our customers have decreased by 70 percent," said Taha Latif, head of Zara, the city's most prominent restaurant and coffee shop. "We used to be open until 10 p.m. We now go home at 5 p.m. or sometimes 4:30 p.m."

Protesters have said they will not stop demonstrating until their demands have been met. Students at Sulaimaniya University have been given two free hours a day to protest.

"What has happened in Sulaimaniya over the past few days has affected trade activities and businessmen's work. It has put concern in their minds regarding the state of security in the region," Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih said.

On Tuesday, some demonstrators who had been arrested earlier in the week were released in an attempt to appease angry mobs.

Rafiq Fadir, head of the anti-corruption committee in the Kurdish parliament, resigned from his position in protest at the lack of progress the committee had made.

"We are ruled by an unreasonable and an uncivilized force," Faruq Rafiq, a prominent Kurdish intellectual, told protesters.

"We should teach them how to govern. We should be their teachers. They can't just kill whoever they want. They can't just arrest whoever they want," he said, telling demonstrators to continue rallying until their demands were met.

(Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Mark Trevelyan)

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