Middle East

Iraqi Kurds struggle with democracy

Media playback is unsupported on your device
Media captionGabriel Gatehouse reports on what the Kurds can tell us about the challenges of life after dictatorship

In February 2011, thousands of people came out on to the streets of Sulaimaniya, the second city in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Inspired by events elsewhere in the Middle East, they thought that people power could help end what they saw as decades of corruption by a small, powerful elite.

But, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the protesters in democratic Kurdistan proved no match for the authorities. After two months, the demonstration was quashed in a brutal fashion.

"I told him not to go out," said Khuncha Qadir, standing over the grave of her 16-year-old son, Sirkew.

"I said to him, 'Sirkew, I had a dream. If they start shooting, don't go that way.'"

Parties' stranglehold

But Sirkew did go to the demonstration. Footage filmed by a witness on a mobile phone shows a group of men with rifles and pistols in a stand-off with the protesters.

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption Sirkew's parents accuse 'militias' of the two main parties of killing their son

One begins firing directly into the crowd. Two young men are seen falling to the ground. One is Sirkew, wearing a red jumper. He died of his wounds later that same evening.

So far no-one has been held responsible for the death of Sirkew or any of the other nine people who lost their lives during the protests.

But Sirkew's parents say they know who killed their son: militias from Iraqi Kurdistan's two main political parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

These parties emerged out of the guerrilla struggle against Saddam Hussein in the 1970s and '80s.

They were known as the Peshmerga - literally 'those who face death' - and they ousted Saddam Hussein's forces from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991.

Today, the Peshmerga has become the official defence force of Kurdistan, and a vital part of the Kurdish national psyche. Peshmerga songs can be heard blaring out of music shops on Sulaimaniya's main streets.

It is hard to overestimate the extent of their influence.

"The two main parties are controlling everything," says Asos Hardi, the editor of Awene, a prominent independent newspaper.

"They control the government, they control even civil society organisations. They control the military forces, security, they control the economy. They control education and everything."

Rife nepotism

In the 1990s, after Saddam Hussein was ousted from Iraqi Kurdistan, the two Peshmerga parties fought each other for control. They have now agreed an uneasy truce and have united to maintain their dominance at the ballot box.

In elections in 2009 the KDP and the PUK won a clear majority of the seats in the regional assembly.

Image copyright (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption School teacher Shenah Abdallah says having political connections is the only way to get ahead

But their majority was reduced by a strong challenge from a new party, Goran, meaning 'Change', which mounted a robust campaign against corruption and nepotism.

"If you don't have connections, it's quite hard to get a job," says Shenah Abdallah, aged 30, surrounded by her pupils at a primary school in Sulaimaniya.

Shenah trained as an anthropologist and has degrees from universities in Britain and the US. She should, she says, be teaching at the local university, not a primary school.

But after a decade abroad, she does not have those crucial links with political parties.

"In fact it's hard to do anything. If I want to publish an article or a book, you have to do it through the political body, you have to have connections.

"Lots of people come and try to make a change but they give up," she adds. "It's just too hard, it's unbelievable what you face."

Kurdistan is not poor. It has vast reserves of oil and natural gas. But Shenah and her fellow protesters say the government is simply not giving people like her a fair share of the region's resources.

She says that the Peshmerga, the men who were once the liberators of Kurdistan, are no longer governing in the interests of the Kurdish people.

"Everything they have done is for their own benefit," she says.

"They're buying supermarkets and hospitals elsewhere, for themselves. They have bank accounts everywhere. It's for their own benefit."

A Kurdish Spring?

But in Iraq, everything is relative.

Compared to the rest of the country, Kurdistan is secure and stable. That brings with it opportunities for business and development.

For many, those opportunities ultimately trump the demands of the protesters.

"It is true, those in the party are strong," says Kemal Kirkuky, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament and a member of the KDP.

"But they are not strong because of a dictatorship. The people have given them this power, the majority of the people in Kurdistan are with them."

Indeed, Mr Kirkuky and others in the Kurdish government say Kurdistan could serve as a useful model to other nations which have recently overthrown oppressive rulers.

But for many Kurds, the reality is in fact the reverse: 20 years after ousting Saddam Hussein, they are now looking to the Arab Spring for inspiration.

Unlike in Egypt and Tunisia, however, the demonstrations in Kurdistan seem to have failed or faded away - for the moment at least.

One reason for that is a deep-rooted fear of losing their hard-won Kurdish freedoms, says Asos Hardi, the editor of Awene.

"Self-ruling for Kurds is a new thing. The ruling parties are playing this game very smartly. They always try to persuade citizens, 'If we will go, the Kurdish regional government will go, and the status of Kurds inside Iraq will go. We will lose everything.'"

Iraqi Kurdistan may indeed turn out to be an example of what Tunisia, Egypt or Libya could become 20 years after their Arab Spring.

But, says Assos Hardi, it is not a model to aspire to.

"If they try to become like us, I think they will need another Spring to change the situation."

Listen to the full report on BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents on Thursday, 12 January at 11:00 GMT or listen again via the BBC iPlayer or by downloading the Crossing Continents podcast.

More on this story

Around the BBC

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites