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Arab Spring crackdown damages Kurdistan's image as regional model

The US has long championed semi-autonomous Kurdistan as a democratic model for the rest of Iraq and the Middle East. But Kurdish leaders have violently shut down dissenters.

By Staff writer / July 1, 2011

Kurdish pro-democracy protesters battled Kurdish security forces in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, in April during the 62-day 'Kurdish Spring.' Some 5,000 to 6,000 people took to the streets to protest corruption and undemocratic rule. The government’s crackdown left 10 dead.

Zmnako Esmail Khalis


Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Tucked away in an often-overlooked arc of northern Iraq, Kurds launched their "Kurdish Spring" simply enough in mid-February, in solidarity with Tunisians and Egyptians who had toppled dictatorial rulers.

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But the result here was very different, and hardly looked like an unfolding of freedom. Washington’s close Kurdish allies cracked down hard. After 62 days of street protests, 10 people were dead. The carefully crafted image of Kurdistan as a democratic island in an ocean of regional dictatorship was in tatters.

All that visibly remains of the uprising are a few faded posters of its first victim – a 16-year-old – and scorch marks where security forces burned the tents of protesters. But it has deepened the political crisis in this semiautonomous region of northern Iraq.

Beneath the veneer of restored calm, activists say, is a surging mistrust of Iraqi Kurdish leadership. That could complicate the enclave’s relations with the rest of Iraq, especially regarding control of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

It could also undermine aspirations among disenfranchised ethnic Kurds outside Iraq – in Syria, Turkey, and Iran – who have long viewed the limited self-rule exercised by their Iraqi brethren as an example of what they could achieve.

“What humiliated us was the killing of Kurdish citizens by the militia of Kurdish political parties,” says Nasik Kadir, a health ministry worker and political sociologist who vows to fight what she calls “abuse of power.”

“We have suffered for years corruption and lack of rule of law, but when it comes to the blood of our youth, it is unbearable,” says Ms. Kadir, who says she witnessed casualties firsthand in the hospital. “These authorities have lost legitimacy.... For many people [Kurdish leaders] have betrayed our national cause.”

The lions of Kurdish politics

Few here expect real reform from a feudal and tribal system that has enabled two parties, mired in corruption allegations, to dominate Iraqi Kurdish life for decades.

The Kurdish spring demonstrations, which only attracted 5,000 or 6,000 on the streets of Sulaymaniyah, were dismissed by some Kurdish leaders as the work of "saboteurs" and "anarchists" working for "outside interests."


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