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Concerns Over Copycat Uprisings in Kurdistan

Top security official tours region urging residents to express frustrations peacefully, in wake of Pirmagrun riot.
By Abdulla Reshawi
Security forces fear that the violent demonstrations that swept the Kurdish town of Pirmagrun in December may be repeated in other towns where residents are unhappy with public services.



Local officials were assaulted, government property was destroyed and police vehicles were torched on December 23, when residents rioted over poor infrastructure and alleged municipal corruption in Pirmagrun.



It was the worst street violence in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2006, resulting in some 20 injuries and 70 arrests.



Some in Pirmagrun, 20 kilometres north-west of the city of Sulaimaniyah, are divided over whether the riot was effective.



Security officials, meanwhile, say they are concerned that Pirmagrun may inspire similar protests in other dissatisfied communities.



"I cannot be sure that the protest in Pirmagrun will not be an example that other places will follow. Everything is possible," said Sulaimaniyah governorate security chief Qadir Hama Jan, who heads a committee looking into the incident.



Five weeks after the protest, leaders claim they are still waiting for the improvements promised by the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG.



Shortly after the riot, KRG officials promised nine billion dinars (7.7 million US dollars) to support rehabilitation efforts in the town of some 24,000 inhabitants.



The town's mayor, Awat Tofiq, is still in office although his removal was a key demand of the protesters, some of whom claimed he had sparked the riot after saying on television the previous day that townspeople were "blind" to infrastructure improvements,



"After the protest, KRG officials came and met the people. They promised to respond to our demands," said 25-year-old Pirmagrun resident Bakir Gurun. “They said they would start projects to fix our roads and schools, but nothing has been done so far. Our problems with electricity, water and sewage are the same as before.”



According to Hama Jan, the authorities had hired contractors to build a new sewage system, an additional school and road improvements, but the work has yet to begin. He said the mayor will remain in office only until he is reassigned by the KRG.



Hama Jan added that of the 70 people arrested in Pirmagrun, all but two have been released on bail. The two still detained are former peshmerga and have been sent to a military court, he said.



A bigger concern for security forces, Hama Jan continued, is that other disgruntled communities will take to the streets rather than express their frustrations with the authorities peacefully.



"We have gone to places where protests might happen. We have told people there that they can protest peacefully and ask for their rights without using violence,” Hama Jan said.



He declined to give further details, saying only that since late December he had visited two towns in Sulaimaniyah province - Saidsadq and Penjwen - and the district of Chamchamal to discuss services.



A week after the Pirmagrun riots, security forces rolled into Saidsadq, a poor town of approximately 75,000 in the province. Since 2000, the town has elected leaders from one of the KRG’s main opposition parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU.



"There were rumours of a protest before Pirmagrun, but after the riot there the people were speaking about it openly," said Saidsadq mayor Rauf Qadirm. "Then the security chief [Hama Jan] came to the district and met with people and officials here. We told him we needed more infrastructure projects, more employees and more equipment – and the people aren't happy about it."



Despite pleas for government assistance, Qadirm believes that party politics will hamper any civic improvements in Saidsadq.



"Because I am from the KIU, I can't put pressure on the KRG to do more in my district,” he said. “In Kurdistan, there is no framework to know how money is being spent in different places. Personal relations and political affiliations are what work and are effective.”



Salar Mahmud, a 30-year-old community activist in Saidsadq, said when he heard of the Pirmagrum uprising he was prepared to organise a similar protest. He is sceptical of the motives behind the security team’s visit.



"The visit of the Sulaimaniyah security chief was to show us that their troops were prepared for a protest, otherwise why would they send a security chief? If they wanted to know about the lack of services here they would have sent officials from the ministries of health or education," Mahmud said.



Hama Jan said it is part of his duties as security chief to visit towns and address residents’ concerns.



Services such as electricity, water and sewage are key issues for residents of Sulaimaniyah province, particularly in impoverished areas such as Pirmagrun, established in 1988 by Saddam Hussein for the compulsory resettlement of Kurdish refugees uprooted during the brutal Anfal campaign.



Tofiq, who was appointed mayor in 2005, claims that his constituents simply do not understand the budgetary process for improving public works.



Tofiq has been based in Sulaimaniyah since his building in Pirmagrun was vandalised and smashed with rocks during the riots.



"People accused me of corruption and stealing money,” he told IWPR. “They don’t know that the budget is not in my hands. Every project's funding must be approved by higher-ups before it goes to the contractors.



“The budget is always too small to satisfy everyone in Pirmagrun. I did my best, but unfortunately the people didn’t respect me."



Most of the young men who led the uprising, many of whom fled Pirmagrun to escape the security crackdown, remain defiant.



“The people of Pirmmagrun have a long record of struggles and martyrs. We cannot be silent when our government ignores us and doesn’t do its job,” said a protest leader who declined to be named for fear of retribution.



But many of the town elders feel the use of violence was a mistake.



“The protest was not organised well. It was violent. We could not deliver our demands properly,” said an elderly resident who met government representatives after the riot to lobby for better services and to demand that the mayor be fired. “Burning cars and breaking down the doors of governmental offices – these kinds of acts will never solve the town’s problems.”



Abdulla Reshawi is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. Hemin H Lihony is IWPR Iraq’s local editor in Sulaminaniyah.