photo: Eddy van Wessel

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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Killing civilians in the Kurdish mountains

They were smugglers, so it was said, the 30-plus dead from a Turkish attack in the mountains on the border between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. The outcry among the Kurds is enormous. But had it been as big if the victims were PKK guerrilla's? In the past that has not been the case, because we are all too used to attacks on PKK.

Demonstrations in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. Protest in Iraqi Kurdistan (the picture is taken in Sulaymaniya). And official condemnations. Many of them on Facebook, like this of former (and possibly future) Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani: ,,I would like to express my sympathy and extend my condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the Sirnak province bombardment. The victims fell while conducting the everyday activities of their difficult lives. May they rest in peace.''

,,Once again civilians die and blood is shed as the result of an unnecessary war. Peace and stability must prevail. All the issues must be resolved through political and peaceful means so that this unnecessary suffering and bloodshed comes to an end.''

Another official one from the Kurdistan Minister of Foreign Affairs (although he is not allowed to use that title to the outside world, as Baghdad is in charge of foreign affairs), Falah Mustafa: ,,I would like to express my sadness at yesterday's unfortunate and tragic killing of more than 35 Kurds in Turkey, and offer my sincerest condolences to all our Kurdish brothers and sisters effected. This is further proof that violence only results in further misery and tragedy, and that peaceful co-existence can only exist through dialogue and tolerance. It always saddens me to see any such incidents occur, but even more so when it comes at a time when most of the world will be celebrating the arrival of a new year.''

Even the head of the Kurdistan security police, Assaish, Masrur Barzani posted on Facebook. ,,Unfortunately, at these last moments of the year, civil and vulnerable people of ┼×─▒rnak encountered an unfair attack," the son of the Kurdish president Barzani wrote. ,,We denounce and condemn this attack…. No excuses for attack on civilians are acceptable."


Some see the incident as an opportunity to work on Kurdish nationalism. Editor in chief of the former newspaper Aso, Arif Qurbani writes in an opinion piece for AK News: ,,There has been no time better than now for attracting the attention of the world and shoring up international support against this oppression of Kurds. Kurds should not procrastinate and act indifferently; they should confront the threat in a way that it becomes a lesson for anyone who ever considers oppression and draw a limit for him.''

,,Today there is an opportunity that along with the developments of national uprising in Syria, Kurds of Turkey also begin public massive demonstrations and demand democracy, freedom and their rights. But this step requires our guidance, cooperation and support. Our leaders should not be afraid of defending our nation in Turkey. And we should take into account the fact that our silence would further encourage genocide of Kurds under the rule of Turks.''
Even though the strike took place across the border, on Turkish ground, the anger in Iraqi Kurdistan is hot. ,,See what Turks Did to Kurds..... do we deserve that?'', one of my Kurdish friends posted on Facebook. Pictures are posted with 'Stop Turkish terror in Kurdistan', and pictures of the bodies of the victims, lined up in the snow, with family members grieving over them.

,,Amazing details #Uludere missile attacks: half of the 35 dead were under 20 years old; 28 of 35 victims were from the same family! #Turkey'', tweets a colleague in Turkey. There you go. Who were these victims? If you have visited villages on the borders between Iraq and Iran or Turkey, you know. Young people, who use the dark of the night to ride on horses, donkeys and sometimes bikes through the mountains with their smuggling wares. That can be anything: petrol, tea, sugar, luxery products, alcohol. Those nightly drives feed whole families.

The reactions are interesting, because of the growing Turkish business interests in Iraqi Kurdistan. While Iran is the main invester in the South, Turkey has taken charge in the North of Iraq. Turkish firms are building, buying and selling. They are investing on all levels. The Turkish interests in Iraqi Kurdistan are worth many billions. Even though the Turks fight a battle against Kurdish nationalist rebels, they work closely with the Barzani family on making Iraqi Kurdistan the booming economical capital of Iraq. Even though they do not use the name 'Kurdistan' but speak of 'Erbil' as the place of interest, there is a lot at stake.

That is why for once, the Turkish government apologised about the attack. It was a mistake, was the message, the bombs were not meant to hit civilians. So now everybody is focussing on the civilians.If it had been PKK rebels, it would have been fine, seems to be the message. As if they are not people, with family members in their villages who will mourn them.Young people who left their villages in search for a better life for all, and are getting old finding it. One cannot agree with the tools they chose, or the battle they fight. Fact is that we have become too used to them being killed to still wonder about those issues.

No one discusses the fight of PKK, the means, the lost lives of young people, the use of an army against a rebel group. Or the fact that this fight has gone on too long, and has lost too many lives. Can we get the discussion back to the main subject please?


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Americans left, war coming?


The last American military convoy passed the border into Kuwait, ending the almost nine year of American military presence in Iraq. Many Iraqi's are glad to see them go, but worry about what is to come.

And they have a good reason to be worried. In the week that the Americans celebrated the end of their mission in Iraq, political quarrels erupted, a vice-president and a vice-PM fled to Kurdistan and a string of bombs exploded in Baghdad, leaving dozens dead. Facebook is splashed with pictures of gruesome scenes, and angry protests of Iraqi's against the new violence.

Are we back in 2006? Are Sunni's and Shiites at each others throat again? Many people are  holding their breath. Christmas 2011 - no peace on earth, the big battle for power in Iraq is back on the road. No more Americans to harass politicians to stop the violence.

The week after the departure of the Americans was a busy one. The unrest started in the province of Diyala. Some call this province 'a small Iraq' because of the mix of inhabitants: Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Sunni, Shiite - all are there. And yet, most people recognise the name for the province where violence goes on, where Al Qaeda in Iraq was active, where its leader was killed.

The council of Diyala decided that it wants to be an autonomous region, just like Kurdistan is. This is possible since the constitution declared Iraq to be a federal state. Recently, also the council of Salahadin province - more famous is its capital and Saddams town Tikrit - decided to start the procedure to become autonomous. That move was prohibited by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who decided that the decision was made out of sectarian motives, and that Tikrit would be a centre of Sunni radicals and former Baathi's.

Diyala's decision was partly triggered by Maliki's move. Why have the Kurds been allowed to form their own regional government, and would other provincies not be? The Diyala council is mainly Sunni, and they acquired help from the Kurds by promising the disputed town of Khanaqin would be added to Kurdistan.

The opposition, mainly made up of Shiite angrily took to the streets, demanding the decision to be annulled. For more than a week now, the normal route from Kurdistan to Baghdad is blocked, and the traffic is diverted through Tikrit.

Maliki's veto on the desire to move on the federalism issue has lead to anger with his political rivals. His vice-PM Salih al Mutlaq called him a dictator, after which Maliki tried to get the parliament to vote on a motion of distrust against him. At the same time, the Prime Minister came with an arrest warrant against vice-president Tariq al-Hashemi, because he was supposed to have been working with Al Qaeda on attacks against Shiites, and more precise on the attack in the Green Zone in November that Maliki felt was meant for him. Al-Hashemi denies all involvement.

When Maliki told him to prove his innocence, he fled to Kurdistan, where Iraqi president Talabani and Kurdish president Barzani promised to keep him safe. Maliki's call on the Kurds to send him (and Al Mutlaq) back to Baghdad, or try him in Kurdistan, has been politely refused as 'unacceptable'.

Talabani called for an urgent meeting of the Council of Ministers, because the quarrel involves the most important Sunni politicians in Iraq.Their political block, which got most of the votes during elections in 2010, has already left the parliament and will probably also leave the cabinet. At the same time, everybody is very much aware that Shiite PM Maliki holds all the power, as he also holds the Defence and Internal Ministries and the security forces answer to him.

Not even a week after the departure of the Americans, the divisions between Sunni and Shiite in Iraq are higher than ever on the agenda. The swords that have been sharpened in the time that the Americans made the politicians talk and work together, are out and ready. Militias that have been forced underground, are ready, waiting for the call to arms. The final power struggle in Iraq has only just started.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Rolling muscles

Prices in the market have fallen since 'Zakho'. The rapid increase of housing prices in Erbil was halted. Radio and TV do not stop talking about it, nor do the Kurds in the streets.

'Zakho' - that means the attack on alcohol shops and massage parlours, followed by the attacks on offices and media of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, locally better known as Jegerthu. A lot of words have been spoken about the incidents, but what did happen? And why?

It has been become difficult to keep reality separate from stories that have been made up. What is clear, is that an imam in Zakho during the Friday prayers of December 2, talked of Jihad against alcohol sellers and places of shame. Crowds took to the streets. They set fire to 30 liquor stores, four massage centers and three hotels in Zakho, a border town near the Turkish border. Reports say at least 32 people were injured.

Rioters were allegedly encouraged by the Friday speech of Ismael Osman of Zakho's Rasheed Mosque. Yet KDP says the imam is member of Jegerthu, and the union answers he is member of KDP. And because of the alleged links with Jegethu, its offices and media in Zakho, Duhok city, Semel and Qarok were attacked, probably by KDP supporters.

It is the second time in six years that the offices of the Islamic Union are attacked and torched in Duhok, a Governorate that is dominated by KDP. In 2005 four senior Jegerthu members were also killed in the attacks.

KDP organised an urgent meeting for foreign diplomats to assure them KDP had no role in the incidents. Soon after the meeting the American consul general in Erbil deplored what happened, calling on the Kurdistan Regional Government to restore calmness and order in the area and to start an investigation of the events. He spoke of a ,,crime against the coexistence of nations and religious tolerance'', as most of the drink shops in Kurdistan are owned by Christians. Massage centres are relatively new  in the area, and are mostly in Chinese hands.

The incidents are not as simple as they seem. The background is a political one. First of all, Jegerthu has in the Spring been involved with other opposition parties (the Change Party Gorran, for instance) in demonstrations against the Kurdistan government of PUK and KDP - and mainly against the policies of the latter party. Opposition parties for weeks kept up protests in Sulaymaniya. Yet in the past weeks, the same Kurdistan Islamic Union has been involved in discussions with that same KDP about joining the new government a KDP prime minister is forming. Jegerthu supporters do not like this though, they see it as playing games. How can you jump into marriage with someone you said you hated? The union has lost quite a bit of support in the past months.

At the same time, an internal struggle is going on in KDP, between supporters of two wings in the ruling Barzani family. Some of my sources say that as a result of that fight KDP pored the oil on the flames. These sources - inside KDP as well as inside PUK as well as independent - think one side of the family does not want the other to get more powerful. The incidents were meant to keep Nercirvan Barzani from starting a new term as Prime Minister, so they say. He is whispered to be taking over the job from PUK Prime Minister Barham Salah.

Time will tell which is the truth. Clear is, that the Jegethu media after three days of war reporting, changed their tune. The party seems willing to return to the negotiating table with KDP on sharing power, if the remaining 17 of the party members that were picked up after the incidents are released.

The demonstrations in the spring in Sulaymaniya caused much economic damage. Bazari's lost trade and money, restaurants remained empty, taxi's had no work, real estate prices dropped, international investors quit projects. The incidents in Zahko and Duhok have created a tense atmosphere, in which many Kurds worry what will happen next. Will the protests in Sulaymaniya be revived?

The incidents could be meant as a warning. By Jegerthu, of what could follow if they do not get what they want in the new government. Or by KDP, to show its strengh. It depends on who you talk to, who's muscles are rolling.

Thanks to Rudaw for the published pictures

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Booming Koerdistan

In het begin van mijn vele reizen naar Iraaks Koerdistan waren de vluchten schaars en was ik een van de weinige buitenlanders. Gisteren in mijn (volle) vliegtuig terug naar Irak waren de Irakezen duidelijk ver in de minderheid.

Dat tekent de ontwikkeling van Iraaks Koerdistan. Na 2003 waren er eerst alleen vluchten van de VN en wat toestellen die speciaal voor hulpverleners naar Erbil vlogen. Toen opende Royal Jordanian eens per week een nachtelijke verbinding met Erbil. Een paar kleinere Koerdische maatschappijen kwamen en verdwenen weer.

Austrian Airlines begon rond 2008 een regelmatige verbinding tussen Wenen en Erbil (drie dagen per week) - lange tijd de manier waarop ik de trainers voor het IMCK binnen liet vliegen. Sinds ik in Irak kom, heb ik het vliegveld van Erbil zien groeien: van eenn barak met een landingsbaantje naar een modern vliegveld van een lange baan waar de meeste moderne vliegtuigen kunnen landen.

Toen kwam er de route bij via Istanbul, eerst alleen met Atlasjet, nu ook met Turkish Airlines. Al doen die een beetje gek: ze vliegen behalve op Erbil ook op Sulaymaniya, maar denken dat er voor die twee plaatsen verschillende regelingen gelden. KRG geeft Europeanen bij aankomst een gratis toeristenvisum voor 10 dagen. Turkish weet dat dit voor Erbil geldt, maar eist van passagiers voor Sulaymaniya een Iraaks visum (dat tevoren via het consulaat in bijvoorbeeld Den Haag zou moeten zijn aangeschaft).

Waarom? Omdat de Turken Iraaks Koerdistan (dat een legale status heeft als staat in de Iraakse federatie) niet erkent. Toen premier Erdogan vorig jaar het Turkse consulaat in Erbil opende, onder zowel Turkse als Iraakse als Koerdische vlaggen, weigerde hij over Koerdistan te spreken. In plaats daarvan had hij het over de jarenlange relaties met de oude stad Erbil. Terwijl Turken een van de grootste investeerders zijn in Iraaks Koerdistan, en daarbij geen onderscheid maken tussen de verschillende plaatsen... geld stinkt niet, of het nu in Erbil wordt verdiend of in Sulaymaniya.

Het zijn dit soort investeerders en zakenlieden die de verandering hebben gebracht. Iraaks Koerdistan is daadwerkelijk de poort naar de rest van Irak geworden. Maar dat niet alleen: de grote oliereserves in de Koerdische bodem hebben KRG op de kaart gezet. Met het binnenhalen van de eerste oliegigant (Exxon) een paar weken geleden, kan de groei alleen maar doorgaan.

Dat heeft al grote gevolgen voor de prijzen in de Koerdische hoofdstad Erbil, die met de dag internationaler wordt. Al die expats moeten ergens wonen, dus rijzen de huizenprijzen de pan uit. Al die internationale bedrijven hebben panden nodig, dus zijn de prijzen van zakenpanden enorm gestegen. Al die bedrijven hebben goed lokaal personeel nodig, dus zijn de salariseisen van het kleine groepje Irakezen met de juiste ervaring en kennis navenant gestegen. En zo kan ik nog wel even doorgaan.
(Foto van Erbil: Wikipedia)

Recessie? Dat kennen we niet in Irak. Inflatie wel - maar om heel andere redenen dan we die in Nederland hebben: door de toestroom van expats en het handelsinstinkt van de Koerden om daar een slagje uit te slaan.

Het Nederlandse ministerie van Buitenlandse Zaken ontraadt inmiddels nog steeds alle niet noodzakelijke reizen naar Iraaks Koerdistan - want het hanteert een advies voor heel Irak. Achterhaald, lijkt me, toe aan herziening. Want als iedereen zaken komt doen in Irak, waarom dan Nederland niet? Als iedereen een graantje wil meepikken van de 'boom' in Iraaks Koerdistan, waar blijven mijn landgenoten dan?