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.
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."
The gap between the democratic rhetoric and the party-first reality has widened under the long-serving lions of Kurdish politics: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), whose leader Massoud Barzani is president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG); and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), who leader Jalal Talabani is now president of Iraq.
"The PUK and KDP until recent years had a very romantic relationship with the people; they were the tools of the people against Saddam Hussein and people loved that," says one Kurdish analyst who could not be named for fear of reprisals. "But that image has been shattered – it doesn't exist anymore."
There are indeed some progressive laws on the books, and in fact internal divisions in both parties over the use of force and content of reform. But recent steps point to an authoritarian tendency especially in KDP areas, where yet more Barzani family have recently been given top posts. PUK influence has declined since the breakaway Goran [Change] movement took up the opposition role.
"There are a few trappings of democracy, around the same faces. The faces that I know are the same ones that my father knew, and that my kids will probably know," says the analyst. "One thing they [KDP and PUK] know very well is how to survive, which can't be until the end of time. Protests have been fruitful because they made clear to leaders that a good part of society does not want them."
The violence has certainly prompted some soul-searching, and promises of change. KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih, a PUK leader with a progressive reputation, says failure to act on demands "will take the Kurdistan experiment into a dark tunnel."
"We admit without any hesitation that there have been some shortcomings in the corruption files, bad management, and parties have been in control [which] led to protests and legitimate demands for reform," Mr. Salih told the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat this week. "The solution lies in root reform."
The need for such contrition after so many years of Kurdish self-rule is for some a betrayal of decades of suffering and sacrifice. Episodes include Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign that culminated in 1988 with as many as 100,000 dead, and his forces’ crushing of a 1991 Kurdish uprising that pushed 1 million Kurds into Turkey and Iran.
On their lips as they marched across the mountains back then, this reporter heard Kurds praying for an end to tyrannical rule and for freedom. After that, the UN created a safe haven in northern Iraq, marred by a KDP-PUK civil war that took thousands of Kurdish lives in the 1990s.
Kurdistan has since witnessed an economic boom. But that wealth has only touched a few – stoking more anger – as past events are used to excuse the lack of political progress.
"We are still like a baby in the way that we deal with democracy...we have still to learn how to deal with that," says Ari Harsin, a KDP representative.
Lessons have been learned, he says. But the elevated position of Barzani is sacrosanct, and reflected by a 70 percent victory in a 2009 vote.
"Some people in society have a very special role," says Mr. Harsin. "I agree categorically that is not democratic if you see the same faces. But some people are ‘Leader,’ they can bring a peace and a sphere of negotiation. I see Mr. Massoud Barzani as one of those people."
That picture fits the official narrative of Washington, which portrayed the relatively quiet Kurdish north as a regional model. In the eyes of independent newspaper editor Asos Hardi, the Bush administration “needed ... to give the American people the impression there is some hope in Iraq, and we have to keep on until we make all of Iraq like Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Long-cherished freedom proves elusive
But the freedom envisioned by Kurds and trumpeted by the US is proving elusive. One of Hardi’s newspaper staffers left jail recently with broken wrists. Last year, freelance journalist Sardasht Osman received death threats immediately after writing a critical article about Barzani. He was kidnapped in the KDP stronghold of Erbil and later killed.
"You have to remember the ideological root of our parties is totalitarian, because PUK and KDP were Marxist/Leninist [and] are trying to control all the parts of society," says Hardi. "It's true they have changed after 1991 their slogans, they all talk about democracy, human rights. But the mentality is still the same.”
Evidence of that is easy to find. In April toward the end of the protests, according to numerous sources, buses carrying several hundred students and instructors riding to a courthouse protest were diverted by Kurdish security, forced to a remote location, off-loaded and the would-be protesters were beaten.
Hardi's brother Rebin – a prominent Kurdish writer – showed up separately to attend the same courthouse protest, was immediately arrested and severely beaten with electric cables throughout the drive to a local prison.
Photographs show bruises on his head and arm, his thigh bloody and disfigured. Rebin Hardi said it reminded him of the beating he got from Saddam-era Baathists in 1982.
The message was clear: "They are willing to do anything to stay in power," says Rebin Hardi. "The first thing is we should no lose hope. But if things continue like this, we will end up like Libya.”