An Arab Spring ... for the Kurds?

Not if the Kurdish leadership can help it.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Turkish Kurdish women hold pictures of their loved ones who were killed in clashes between Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) guerrillas and Turkish security forces, during a demonstration in central Istanbul May 18, 2011.

One generally overlooked part of the Arab Spring (a phrase I detest yet can't seem to escape) has been Iraq.

The country has had eight years of American-led military occupation, so it doesn't fit neatly into the Western media narrative of young, fed-up Arabs railing against oppression. Iraq's protests over rampant corruption and autocratic official behavior have been dismissed by the nation's leaders as the result of outside agitation (sound familiar?) and largely consigned to the back pages.

Iraq already got rid of its dictator, after all. We're told by the US that Iraq is one of the region's strongest democracies. So, surely its people aren't fed up in the same way with their government, right? (Well, no.)

And it's not just Arab Iraqis. If Iraq is awkward for the media narrative, then the Kurds have tied it into pretzels. The ethnic minority was gassed by Saddam Hussein at Halabja, were protected as a de facto independent enclave by a no-fly zone after the first Gulf War, emerged as kingmakers in the Iraqi parliament, and are generally portrayed in the press as America-loving, western-leaning success story.

When Saddam was still in power, "free Kurdistan" was a popular stop for journalists, who were welcomed with open arms by Kurdish leaders and their doughty peshmerga fighters. After the US invasion and the insurgency had begun, a reporting trip to Kurdistan was a welcome relief from the grind of Arab Iraq's civil war. The Kurds were the little guy, and sand had been kicked in their faces (and far worse) for centuries, so their coverage was and has been generally positive.

But Kurdistan's leaders behave much like the autocrats of the Arab world, and their own people have been chafing at their restraints amid the uprisings from Tunisia to Syria. The Kurdish government has met local protests with violence and repression.

In Sulaymaniyah last month, government forces violently cleared Sara Square of democracy protesters. The square had been visited by hundreds of mostly young Kurds every day, demanding an end to the corruption and entrenched patronage networks of Kurdistan's two ruling parties and fair elections.

This week, The Kurdistan Tribune began publishing. The English language news site laid down the gauntlet to Kurdistan's leaders. "Twenty years after the establishment of Kurdish rule in the south of Kurdistan," they wrote, "the recent mass protests against corruption and the harsh crackdown by the ruling parties highlight the need for a fresh look at our nation’s prospects."

By writing "in the south of Kurdistan," they're referring to Kurdish Iraq. Many Kurds dream of a greater Kurdistan stitching together Kurdish enclaves in Syria, Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.

Of course, the Tribune laid down the gauntlet from a safe distance (it's based in Europe), since the Kurdistan Regional Government in the midst of a wide-ranging press crackdown using "libel suits, beatings, detentions, and death threats," according to Human Rights Watch. Reporters Without Borders says there have been 44 attacks on reporters and 23 arrests of reporters in Kurdistan since mid-February.

"In a time when the Middle East is erupting in demands to end repression, the Kurdish authorities are trying to stifle and intimidate critical journalists," HRW's Sarah Leah Whitson said in a press release.

Both Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani currently have libel suits pending against the editor in chief of Livin magazine, a Kurdish magazine. Mr. Talabani runs the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Mr. Barzani runs the Kurdish Democratic Party. Their families and parties have been the unchallenged poles of Kurdish political life for generations.

HRW says that Kurdish forces beat Kurdistan News Network reporter Bryar Namiq on May 11. The group says a number of local journalists have gone into hiding since they covered antiregime protests in April. Soran Umar is a journalist who helped organize the anticorruption protests and has been in hiding since April 19.

"My sin is that I am criticizing the undemocratic acts of [the Kurdish Regional Government] and the two ruling parties ... the security forces have tried to kidnap me, and they have ordered my arrest. They even tried to kidnap my son," he told Human Rights Watch.

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