Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kurdistan Picks up the Pieces

The attack on the two main Kurdish parties has provided impetus for resolving their differences.
By Hiwa Osman

Unusually for a Wednesday afternoon, the cavernous Sawaf Mosque in the centre of Arbil was packed.

Rival leaders from the two most powerful Kurdish political parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP – stood side by side on February 4 to welcome an endless parade of people expressing condolences for the 109 left dead in the bombings of the two parties’ headquarters three days earlier.

The hall echoed with the mournful voice of a mullah reciting passages from the Koran as people walked in and sat cross-legged on warm red carpets to recite al-Fatiha – the Muslim prayer for the dead.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a group of Yezidis – members of a pre-Islamic faith – filed in, wearing their white robes and distinctive turbans. They waited patiently for the mullah to end his recitation. Their priest then intoned the Yezidi prayer for the dead, before they joined the other mourners on the red carpets.

Moments later, leaders of the Jubur, an Arab Sunni tribe, entered and took seats in the front row. They were followed by a group of Assyrian Christians, led by their priest in his long red robe and skull cap.

A number of non-Kurdish members of the Iraqi Governing Council also arrived to pay their respects. The most noticeable was Mowaffaq Al-Rubayi, who walked to a quiet corner of the Sunni mosque and prayed for the dead in the Shia rite.

The coexistence between these diverse ethnicities, traditions and faiths sets Kurdistan apart from the rest of Iraq. In the 13 years since it freed itself from Saddam Hussein’s rule, the region has seen the emergence of more liberal, tolerant values, so that Turkoman children study in their own language, liberal women successfully lobby for changes in the law, and Christian neighbourhoods host liquor stores.

Many in Kurdistan believe it was this open-minded attitude that compelled “the forces of darkness", as the local saying goes, to stage what some have described as the Kurds’ “September 11”.

Few in the city believe these dark forces are any other than the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Islam.

Born and bred in Kurdistan, but joined by Arab fighters trained in Afghanistan, Ansar members were routed from their mountain hideout in the early stages of the war last spring. Many are thought to have fled into Iran.

However, on an Islamist website ( a formerly unknown group called Jaysh Ansar al-Sunnah, or the Army of Supporters of the Sunni Faith, has claimed responsibility for the Arbil attack.

The group claims it struck at the heart of the two Kurdish parties because they had "paved the way for the American army of crusaders".

Whether the Sunni Kurdish and Arab Ansar members have joined forces with other foreign fighters in Iraq to form this new group is a matter of speculation.

But that doesn’t matter to some people. "We should implement a zero tolerance policy with these Islamists from now on," said one mourner at the mosque, echoing the sentiments of many others.

As Kurdish leader Sadi Pirah pointed out, the twin bombings wiped out nearly an entire generation of Arbili activists who began their struggle against the Baath regime in the 1960s when they were students.

Whether members of the PUK or the KDP, they survived Saddam's prisons and his murderous campaign against the Kurds, only to fall victim to the suicide attacks

One of those Kurdish activists, Adnan Mufti, lies in hospital bed not far from the mosque.

Mufti – who is currently the PUK representative in the city – was a resident of Arbil’s old walled town, where his family had lived for countless generations. He survived near-endless wars and a 1980s assassination attempt by Saddam's men, who even dosed his food with thallium, a highly toxic chemical used in rat poison.

Mufti even survived this bombing – but only because his body guard Howar Rahman threw himself between his boss and the bomber. Rahman died when he took the blast full on.

Silenced by shrapnel that ripped through his throat and larynx, Mufti could only wave to the endless parade of well-wishers. His assistants kept track of the names of visitors in a daily register. By 1.00 pm that day, it listed 562 people.

At the end of the corridor, some of his visitors sat in the waiting room, where all conversation naturally centred on the bombings.

While few doubted that the bombers were Islamists of some stripe, they also blamed the complacency of the Kurdish political parties following the war. "These two big parties should be embarrassed that a small group has managed to create this carnage," said one visitor.

"There are areas where the KDP can't go to at night because of the Islamist presence," noted another.

Yet another said the competition between the two parties distracted security officials from the real threat, "They were more busy finding out who is with the PUK or who is with KDP, than keeping an eye on these terrorists."

But all agreed on one point: the strong sense of unity that has emerged since the bombings should force the two parties to unite their governments at long last, as stipulated in the 1998 Washington agreement that ended their civil war.

"It is about time for our leaders to set their differences aside and come up with a united government, a united task force to combat these terrorists," said one visitor.

So far, little appears to have changed apart from stricter security measures. In Arbil, KDP security has set up two-man checkpoints all over the city to inspect passing cars.

But some people think protection of the Kurdish north must be broadened beyond the parties' security and intelligence structures.

"Fighting the terrorists will have to become everyone's battle," said Rauf Mohammad, a former peshmerga or Kurdish fighter. "When we were fighting Saddam Hussein, everyone was helping us. We need to turn this war into a national project."

Hiwa Osman is an IWPR trainer and editor based in Baghdad.

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