[Marxism] Kurdish awakening

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Mar 16 20:40:30 MST 2006

NY Times, March 17, 2006
Kurds Destroy Shrine in Rage at Leadership

HALABJA, Iraq, March 16 — For nearly two decades, Kurds have gathered 
peacefully in this mountainous corner of northern Iraq to commemorate one 
of the blackest days in their history. It was here that Saddam Hussein's 
government launched a poison gas attack that killed more than 5,000 people 
on March 16, 1988.

So it came as a shock when hundreds of stone — throwing protesters took to 
the streets here Thursday on the anniversary, beating back government 
guards to storm and destroy a museum dedicated to the memory of the Halabja 

The violence, pitting furious local residents against a much smaller force 
of armed security men, was the most serious popular challenge to the 
political parties that have ruled Iraqi Kurdistan for the past 15 years. 
Occurring on the day the new Iraqi Parliament met for the first time, the 
episode was a reminder that the issues facing Iraq go well beyond fighting 
Sunni Arab insurgents and agreeing on cabinet ministers in Baghdad.

Although Kurdistan remains a relative oasis of stability in a country 
increasingly threatened by sectarian violence, the protests here — which 
left the renowned Halabja Monument a charred, smoking ruin — starkly 
illustrated those challenges even in Iraq's most peaceful region.

Many Kurds have grown angry at what they view as the corruption and tyranny 
of the two dominant political parties here. They accuse their regional 
government of stealing donations gathered to help survivors of the poison 
gas attack. The town's residents chose Thursday to close off the town's 
main road and rally against government corruption. When government guards 
fired weapons over the protesters' heads, the crowd went wild and attacked 
the monument.

The sudden and deliberate destruction of such a well-known symbol of 
Kurdish suffering clearly stunned officials with the Patriotic Union of 
Kurdistan, which governs the eastern part of the Kurdish region. But many 
local people, including survivors of the 1988 attack — said the Patriotic 
Union was to blame, having transformed the monument into an emblem of its 
own tyranny and greed.

"All the money given by foreign countries has been stolen," said Sarwat 
Aziz, 24, as he marched to the museum in a crowd of furious, chanting young 
men. "After 18 years, Halabja is still full of debris from the war, we 
don't even have decent roads."

Several protests have occurred in recent months against the Patriotic Union 
of Kurdistan, led by Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan 
Democratic Party, which runs western Kurdistan and is led by Massoud 
Barzani. But nothing has come close to the violence that erupted Thursday 
in Halabja.

Apparently unnerved by the prospect of publicity, party militia members 
tried twice to confiscate the cameras of a photographer for The New York 
Times who was leaving Halabja by car Thursday evening, and only stopped 
after an appeal to high-ranking party officials.

At a hastily arranged news conference in Halabja, Emad Ahmad, the acting 
regional prime minister and a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan official, said 
the party would "try to address any defects and corruption that exist 
within the administration." He said the demonstration had started 
peacefully only to be overtaken by outsiders, and he hinted that Islamic 
radicals might be to blame.

"There is a hand behind this, and we must cut off the hand," Mr. Ahmad said.

An Islamic opposition movement operates in Halabja, though there were no 
signs that it had a role in organizing the demonstration.

By all appearances, the attack on the Halabja Monument was an authentic 
expression of popular rage. The crowd contained young and old, men and 
women. Most seemed to view the museum — which was inaugurated in September 
2003 at a ceremony attended by Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state 
— as the prop of an unjust government.

"That monument over there has become the main problem for Halabja," said 
Bakhtiar Ahmad, nodding at the museum, with its distinctive yellow 
crown-shaped roof. "All the foreign guests are taken there, not to the city."

Nearby, Tara Rahim, a quiet 19-year-old dressed in a neat black cloak and 
head scarf, said she had come to honor her sister Zara, killed in the 1988 
attack, and to stop the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan from taking advantage 
of the anniversary.

"Kurdish officials used Halabja to gather money," she said, standing with a 
group of eight other identically dressed young women. "Millions of dollars 
has been spent, but nothing has reached us."

The protest began about 9 a.m., when local residents poured onto Halabja's 
main road and ignited tires. As the crowd grew, protesters moved toward the 
monument and hurled stones at a sign outside that read, in Kurdish, "No 
Baathists Allowed Here." It collapsed in pieces.

About 40 Patriotic Union of Kurdistan guards, gathered around the monument, 
began firing long machine-gun bursts into the air. The sound echoed like 
thunderclaps against the towering wall of snow-capped mountains that forms 
the Iranian border, a few miles away.

The shooting only enraged the crowd, and as the guards retreated in a 
panic, the protesters reached the monument and began smashing its windows 
and glass display cases with stones. Inside, protesters poured propane from 
a can and set fire to it. Within minutes, flames were licking from the 
windows and a thick column of black smoke was twisting into the bright blue 

The security guards moved back toward the monument, and some began firing 
weapons into the retreating crowd. One bullet sliced through the chest of 
Kurdistan Ahmed, a 17-year-old high school student, and he collapsed onto 
the grass, dying.

By noon, it was over. One protester was dead, six were wounded, and most of 
the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan guards had retreated to their compound on 
the edge of town, leaving the monument a blackened hulk of broken glass and 
shattered tiles.

At the hospital, anxious mothers searched for their sons. "I fled the gas 
attack with no shoes, and now I must come here to see if my relatives have 
been shot," cried Roshna Sidiq, 31, her face heavy with grief.

The violence made a surreal contrast with the peaceful mountain landscape, 
where, only a few hundred yards away, shepherds in traditional Kurdish 
dress tended their sheep on fields as green as Eden.

Later, family members and friends gathered in a Halabja mosque to recite 
Koranic prayers over the youth's body, wrapped in a blanket on the floor. 
Many sobbed uncontrollably, repeating his name.

"Kurdistan," they wailed, clutching their faces. "Oh, my Kurdistan."

Yerevan Adham contributed reporting for this article.

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