Military presence halts protests in Iraq's Kurdistan
SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - The deployment of thousands of heavily armed troops in Iraq's Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya appears to have quelled, for the moment, two months of protests against corruption and authoritarian rule.
The protests in the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region were the largest and most sustained of rallies across Iraq, which followed uprisings around the Middle East. Thousands protested every day for weeks, demanding the removal of their government.
"They failed 100 percent," said Jamal Anwar, commander of a military unit deployed in Sulaimaniya's main square, where protesters had gathered daily since February. "They thought they could topple the government. Their agendas have all failed."
"It was not a demonstration staged by the people. It was staged by opposition parties. We don't allow that," he added.
At least 10 people, including two members of the peshmerga security forces, have died in the protests, and hundreds have been wounded.
Rights organization Amnesty International criticized the Kurdish and Iraqi governments for using excessive force against protesters.
Kurdistan has often been referred to as "the other Iraq" because it was spared much of the violence and sectarian strife that ravaged the rest of the country after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Sulaimaniya protesters had persisted until this week in their demands that the two long-time ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by the Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, loosen their grip.
The region, funded by 17 percent of Iraq's oil income, has seen an economic boom in the past eight years but Kurds complain that Barzani and Talabani, like other Middle East leaders, failed to use oil riches to build a vibrant economy and democracy.
This week, Sulaimaniya's Liberation Square, where protesters had camped out for weeks chanting "freedom, freedom, freedom," was a military zone watched over by hundreds of armed forces.
The ruling parties have said the demise of the protests represented a success over "trouble-makers" staging "politically motivated" demonstrations.
"What the authorities did here was beyond expectations," said Asos Hardi, manager of Awene, one of the few Kurdish newspapers not tied to the political parties. "Thousands ... of troops were brought in to suppress civilian protesters, who are students, artists and professors.
"I did not even see as many troops present in 1983 and 1984 while we demonstrated against Saddam," Hardi said.
Nasik Qadir, a protest organizer, accused the Kurdish security forces of hunting, arresting and torturing protesters.
"We can't live under such autocratic rule," Qadir said in a telephone interview. She refused to meet with a reporter out of concern for her safety.
"If we have done anything wrong, let them tell us and we will go before the courts. They don't have to chase us and raid our houses. This looks like mafia behavior."
Since February 17, security forces harassed, arrested, wounded or tortured more than 200 journalists, said Rahman Gharib, manager of the Metro Center To Protect Journalists.
Payam TV in Sulaimaniya, a channel belonging to an Islamic opposition party that offered extensive coverage of the rallies, has been surrounded by soldiers for eight days. On Wednesday, more than 300 people were living in makeshift tents as a "human shield" in front of the TV station.
"It's the only Islamic channel which tells the truth," said Basoz Ali, 27, who carried a 7-month-old child. "We don't love our lives more than the employees of the channel. If they kill them, let them kill us too."
Hardi said the government's use of military force might maintain the status quo longer, but it would be temporary.
"Losing a battle does not mean losing the war," he said. "Any new revolutionary success in Yemen or Syria could trigger an even bigger protest in Kurdistan."
(Editing by Jim Loney and Janet Lawrence)
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