Feb 27, 2011

Day 11 of Demonstration: The Great Wall peace community

From Sulaymaniya protest, Feb 24
The White Group agenda

Following the 26 February 2011 incident, the White Group drafted the following statement:

After many conversations following the incident on Saturday, February 26, which resulted in injuries and death, we decided to make the following points regarding the future activities of the White Group:

1. After the shooting, the Peshmerga [military] forces that were surrounding the demonstration mixed with the people and the people welcomed them by clapping. The work of the peace wall initially was to stop the interaction between the Peshmerga forces and the people. Following the mix of forces and people in this good way, it was determined that the role of the peace wall was finished. For this reason, the White Group is no longer necessary. However, at any time the demonstrators feel the need for the White Group, we are ready as a group to re-establish the wall.

2. We will work to make pressure on the courts to stop the arrest of people without court orders and we will investigate those people who have made arrests without court orders.

3. We will make pressure on the judges not to limit any statements for publication especially during this time and current situation. Many famous people have published statements and we want to pressure the courts to protect human rights for public interest. We will also pressure the courts to protect the right to record criminal activity in these incidents.

4. We will prepare daily reports about activities in Suleimaniya city and send them out internationally.

5. We will follow up and document all the people who have been arrested and disappeared as well as visit jails, police and Asaish [Kurdish secret police].

6. We will collect videos and photos of the demonstrations to keep as a record and to preserve the truth.

7. We will bring in international and independent investigators and include them in the team of local investigators.

Feb 26, 2011

Day 10 of Demonstration: Today was not a good day

Today was not a good day
26 February 2011

The demonstration was going along fine when suddenly an explosion occurred from behind the stage. Black smoke filled the air. For a moment, everyone seemed to be stunned and frozen. Then the crowd panicked and started running in different directions. Someone announced that the explosion was just an electrical explosion from a generator. The White Group raised their hands in an attempt to calm everyone down and gestured to the soldiers standing behind the White Group that everything was okay. Within five minutes, hundreds from the crowd broke through the White Group line and ran directly up to the soldiers screaming at them and blaming them for what happened. Shortly after, demonstrators told the White Group that a percussion bomb went off behind the stage. Accusations that the sound bomb was set the night before by people who want to destroy the demonstrations and Suleimaniya began to circulate.

The group of demonstrators who ran towards the soldiers behind our line was beginning to return towards the center. To the credit of these soldiers, they never raised their guns and with the exception of a few flying shoes, we did not see the demonstrators do anything more than scream at the soldiers.

For a few moments, there was hope that this might just calm down without any further incident but then the shooting began. The place quickly turned chaotic and many people, including the CPT-Iraqi Kurdistan team, ran into the bazaar. The shooting continued for a few moments and then the merchants in the bazaar asked everyone to leave because they wanted to close their shops for fear that the bazaar would be destroyed. We stood in the street for a few minutes trying to get our bearings when another crowd of people stormed down the street. In order to not be trampled, we moved back against the wall and let the crowd run by. We later learned that they were running in fear that the soldiers would start shooting and many roads were closed at this point so there were no really clear exits.

The team at this moment is home and safe, and local news reports one dead and eleven wounded. Violence in other cities is also being reported on local news. Other reports are coming in by phone and weblog, e.g., "my friend is calling me; he is excited and shouting. Karzan, you have to see this. Lots of protesters carrying rocks went toward the Peshmerga force and fight almost broke out again. But now they are making peace. Some members of the Peshmerga force are putting down their weapons and kissing the protesters. We are brothers and we won't shoot at you. Some (Peshmerga) are crying."

Feb 25, 2011

Day 9 of Demonstration: The White Group formed human chains three lines deep

From Sulaymaniya Protest, Feb 25 - "Day of Rage"
(photo: Peace Wall managed to avert a riot as a small group of youth wanted to attack the soldiers behind..Feb25 2011)

The White Group formed human chains three lines deep…
25 February 2011

Filled with approximately 15,000 people, Freedom Square in Suleimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan was a shining example of a nonviolent revolution. At 10:00 a.m., the square was already starting to fill. Before the noon prayer began, there were about 10,000 people listening to the opening speeches. More came when the noon prayer began which took place in the square. People came with plastic cloth, cardboard, and prayer rugs. The Mullah offered a special prayer to all the people who have been participating in these days of protest recognizing that these are the voices of the ordinary people and not the parties.

The rest of the day consisted of many speeches, quite a few of them from women. "There can not be a revolution without the women,” a young university student said.

A group from Qaludze marched in with their banner apologizing for getting there so late. Checkpoints made it very difficult for everyone traveling today. The [people from Qaludze] were greeted with welcoming cheers. A group of doctors and medical students marched in with flowers, banners, and placards. "No more killing," and "We want democracy" were two slogans that stood out. The speeches were interspersed with music. One particular song with the line, "I will never sell this city out to the gold sellers,” was played repeatedly.

While the Suleimaniya demonstration continued, three high level government officials met in Suleimaniya. They seemed to agree that change is necessary and there was some talk of new elections in the immediate future.

The White Group (Geroupee Spi) had a large presence at today's demonstration. There were a few tense moments when a crowd of people began giving the soldiers—who were… blocking off key streets—a hard time. The White Group intervened and someone from the stage began to chant, "These Peshmerga are our brothers." The White Group also heard that a group of provocateurs from Erbil were planning to come to destroy the demonstration. One of the security officers spoke with one of the Erbil troublemakers saying, "The people here will kill you if you come." Apparently, this was enough to change their minds.

The demonstration ended at 5:30 p.m., but not without one more round of tensions. Six young drunk men put on a good show of trying to break through the White Group line to attack the soldiers. They rallied a small group to break through the line with them. One was carrying a knife. The White Group formed human chains three lines deep to keep them back. Bottles of water started flying followed by numerous shoes. There are probably many barefoot men walking around the city of Suleimaniya tonight. The soldiers kept their calm, never once raising their rifles and the White Group contained the situation and eventually talked the young men out [of doing what they were planning]. The White Group ended the day by cleaning up the square.

Not every city was so lucky to end without violence. Government buildings in Mosul, Tikrit, and Kirkuk were burned down. As of now, we have not heard confirmations on death or injuries.

Demonstrations will continue daily in Suleimaniya. The youth will not rest until change occurs. Although the streets of Suleimaniya are a little less tense and not as filled with soldiers and heavily armed vehicles [as they were earlier], there is still a sense of urgency in the air for change to come quickly. The White Group will continue its presence at the ongoing demonstrations and will hold a safe space for people to raise their voices for this needed change.

Feb 24, 2011

Day 8 of Demonstration: White Group says to U.S.

From Sulaymaniya protest, Feb 23
(photo: The "White Group" was again keeping security forces and protesters apart. Feb23 2011)

White Group says to U.S., “The situation in Suleimaniyah is deteriorating”
Suleimaniyah 24th of February 2011
To: The State Department of the United States of America, American Embassy and Consulates in Iraq
From: The White Group (Geroupee Spi), Suleimaniyah

Dear Ladies and Sirs,

As representatives of the newly founded “White Group” we urgently address you.  Since last Thursday, the 17th of February, the situation in Suleimaniyah city and Governorate is severely deteriorating.

 After demonstrators protested against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a peaceful demonstration, some rallied towards the main branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.  Militias of this party answered stone throwing with live ammunition, killing four, and injuring more than 150 people, in addition to detaining unknown number of demonstrators.

Since then, the situation is heating up.  Thousands of heavily armed militiamen were sent into the city; young protesters are enraged.  Every day thousands, if not tens of thousands, gather in Suleimaniyah and other cities of the governorate for demonstrations.  Normal life came to a standstill.

We are trying to calm the situation, standing daily in white clothes between the heavily armed militias and the demonstrators.  We could have prevented further violence, but we are not sure for how long we are able to continue.

We are severely shocked that until now we didn’t hear any official U.S. statement.  Since one week now this situation is unfolding.  Any condemnation or even expression or concern from the U.S. would have helped a lot.  People here are just demanding their basic rights.  We all thought that the U.S. seriously believes in democracy in Iraq.  Now we see you watching how militias not accountable to the government, but [to political] parties, use excessive force against demonstrators.  As you can see in these pictures heavily armed soldiers are stationed everywhere in our city.

Therefore we strongly urge you to take action.  We believe your voice is still heard in Iraq and especially Iraqi-Kurdistan, where U.S. troops were greeted as liberators in 2003, inspiring us to work hard for improving the situation of people here.  Please make clear to the responsible politicians and parties that the U.S. will not accept further violence and killings against civilians.

Your silence was recognized too.  Especially the young demonstrators we talk to on a daily base got the impression the U.S. is not with the people but the parties here.  The future of Iraq and Kurdistan lie in the hands of this young generation.  The future of bilateral ties with the U.S. too.

So it’s high time to take action.  We don’t know how long we will be able to keep the situation calm.  We need your help now.  If it will be too late after Friday, the day of demonstrations all over Iraq and Kurdistan, we all will regret that no steps were taken to prevent harm and more destruction.

We are again very afraid that if nothing happens, our city and governorate will soon see a bloodbath.

Wit best Regards

The Members of the White Group (Geroupee Spi)
The White Group is composed of various civil society organizations, civil society activists, journalists, and artists.

Here are the most urgent demands of the demonstrators.  We think they are all moderate and correspond with the principles of democracy and rule of law:

1.       Suing all of those involved in murdering the demonstrators in Suleimaniyah and publicly announcing the court rulings related to this matter.
2.       Withdrawing all of the forces brought to Suleimaniyah and keeping only those forces affiliated with the Ministry of Interior in the city.
3.       The authorities should promise that force will not be used to face the demands of the demonstrators and that it listen to those demands through creating channels of dialogue and conversion.
4.       Urgently issuing a decision by the Parliament of Kurdistan to prohibit the use of military forces in internal affairs and conflicts.
5.       The President of the region and the Prime Minister should immediately issue an apology to the victims and the people of Kurdistan.
6.       Freeing all of those who have been detained as a consequence of the demonstration on February 17th and the demonstrations followed.

Feb 23, 2011

Day 7 of Demonstration: Protests continue; riot averted

Protests continue; riot averted
Feb23 2011

The seventh day of anti-government protests in Suleimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan ended peacefully, today. The "White Group," a non-violent group of citizens sympathetic to reform including actors, writers and lawyers, again deployed itself between the protesters and the security forces. Towards the end of the protest, the group, together with other protesters, managed to avert a riot. A small group of protesters sought to assault the soldiers and march on the KDP office, where security guards had opened fire on protesters last Thursday, killing at least two, and wounding dozens. The White Group organized several human chains to prevent a confrontation with the military, and talked to the violent group to de-escalate the situation.

Feb 22, 2011

Day 6 of Demonstration: Armed with plastic flowers

From Sulaymaniya protest, February 22
From Sulaymaniya protest, February 22
Armed with a calming demeanor, plastic flowers, white vests, and white cloth, approximately eighty White Group members formed a semicircle around the square
22 February 2011

Approximately 4000 to 5000 demonstrators gathered today at Freedom Square in the city center of Suleimaniya. The gathering, which started about 1:00 p.m., was almost festive … Most of the demonstrators were unemployed citizens. One man who spoke fairly good English told us, "Some of the people you see here today are students who spent six years in medical school and still have no job. How can this be when Jalal Talabani gives his family and his son millions of dollars and yet unemployment in the KRG is so high?'

Speeches from the square were fiery yet civil and were interspersed with poetry and music. At one point, … people from the city of Kalar marched into the square and were greeted with cheers and support from the Suleimaniya demonstrators. Last night, news of demonstrations in Kalar was filled with reports of violence and heavy injuries. Shortly after the Kalar group arrived, two white doves were released into the air and they circled above the smiling and cheering crowd. "These birds represent peace and hope to us," one person told CPT.

The plan for CPT today was to document events and stand with the White Group. This group, consisting of about fifteen local NGOs and young people from the University formed yesterday to act as a buffer between the security forces and the demonstrators. Many of the injuries from the past few days resulted from rock throwing and beatings between these two groups during clashes. Armed with a calming demeanor, plastic flowers, white vests, and white cloth, approximately eighty White Group members formed a semicircle around the square. Behind them were well over 1000 armed security forces. In front of them were the 5000 demonstrators. There were at least three instances where tensions were defused when some people from the square tried to barge into the line of security forces. The White Group quickly stepped between them and security and calmed what could have been a violent exchange. However, one of the most remarkable methods of preventing violence happened when the White Group handed out bunches of plastic flowers to the security forces. Some held the flowers in their hands. Others put the flowers in the barrel of their rifles. The faces of the security forces had softened and many were smiling and making eye contact with the people. In front of them, stood the White Group, firmly rooted in their space and each holding a flower as well. Today's demonstration ended without any violent incidents. The White Group remained in the square for six hours until all the demonstrators and security left. The group will return tomorrow.

While things are appearing to calm down a bit in Suleimaniya, there are reports of violence at demonstrations in the smaller cities and subdistricts. Qaludze, Halabja, Kalar, and others have reported serious skirmishes between security forces and the people. There is still a fear that these areas have the potential to become uncontrollable. Meanwhile, the leaders of the main parties are due to meet again in two days. President Barzani apologized to the father of the fourteen-year-old boy who was killed on 17 February and it is rumored that the family has received compensation money for the loss of their child—a nice gesture on his part but one that probably indicates that the KDP is more worried than remorseful.

Protest movements throughout Iraq are planning a coordinated "Day of Rage" coming Friday, 25 February. CPT understands that Suleimaniya will participate in this wave of protests. Although everyone here in Suleimaniya is thankful for two days of no violence, the sense that the city has been turned into a war zone still reverberates through the streets filled with soldiers and heavily armed vehicles.

Feb 18, 2011

Day 1& 2 of Demonstration: Change is in the air

Change is in the air
Feb18 2011

Two days ago, CPT got a call from one of our partners who said there was a man at the city center who was fed up with the government and threatened to set himself on fire. Within an hour or so, he was taken off. Some say the Security Police got him and kept him from burning himself. Others say Mustafa talked him out of it.

Yesterday was the day of the big demonstration in Suleimaniya that ended in chaos, injury, and death. First, we heard that the demonstration was not permitted and that it was likely called by the Communist Party. The Communist and the Islamic Union Parties were both present. At the high point of the demonstration, there might have been about 3000 people present. Traffic was not blocked and there was no real presence of police. At some point towards the end of the demonstration, a group of people broke off and headed towards the KDP headquarters, which is maybe a fifteen-minute walk from the city center where the demonstration took place. Shots were fired, people were running, and ambulances arrived. Salim Street, the main street heading out of the city center, was blocked off.

Throughout the evening, we were hearing reports that up to nine people were killed and dozens wounded. At 7:00 p.m., the city was under curfew until 7:00 this morning. During the night, the Gorran headquarters in four cities throughout the KRG were said to be looted and set on fire.

The events…are still pretty muddy. A few facts have surfaced. The demonstration was called by a group called Civilian Defenders Network. This may not be the exact title but this is the closest translation from Kurdish to English that I could get. The demonstration was, in fact, permitted. The group got permission from the Suleimaniya Governor. Here's where the rest gets muddy. Some say a group looking for a fight made their way down to the KDP headquarters. The group might have been a few hundred people. Some say this group broke into the building and started destroying computers and furniture. Others say they started throwing rocks. Some say that the first people to go to the KDP building were actually paid to do this by the KDP. Supposedly, they led the larger group of 200 to 300, provoking the group to throw rocks and storm the building and then took off before the shooting started. Nobody has said who ordered the KDP headquarter guards to start shooting and there has been no insinuation that the protesters had weapons. This morning a Special Forces anti-terrorism unit from Erbil arrived in Suleimaniya. At present, they are at the Furmandy base, which is close to the Suleimaniya airport. They are supposedly here to guard the KDP building. The Gorran people are demanding that they return back to Erbil. The Gorran people are also demanding an emergency Parliament session and they are demanding that the guards who shot into the crowd are brought to the court for a full investigation.

In the end, it seems that one person died. He was fourteen years old. About forty have been wounded. Most of them are teenagers to mid twenties.

Feb 9, 2011

Day 3 of Demonstration: The face of stability, security, and democracy is quickly eroding

The face of stability, security, and democracy is quickly eroding
Feb 19 2011

Today the situation here is escalating. The PUK and KDP Peshmerga were out on the streets of Suleimaniya in full force, allegedly to protect the KDP headquarters. Last night Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of the Gorran list, demanded that these military forces return to Hawler. Meanwhile the KDP said that Dr. Barham Salih, the KRG prime minister, ordered the military to the streets to protect the KDP headquarters.

CPTers walked up to the city square where many students from the university were holding a demonstration. On the way to the bazaar, CPTers saw nine humvees loaded with big weapons drive up Salim St. towards the bazaar. About eight or nine blocks from the bazaar, Salim St. was closed even to pedestrians. We zigzagged up to the entrance of the bazaar and we tried to make our way to the city center. We passed by a truck with a water cannon positioned in the middle of the street ready to fire in any direction.

Eventually, we were headed off by hundreds of Asaish (secret police) and maybe Peshmerga (military). Even the local guide did not know who was who. Later we learned that these guys were expecting more problems at the KDP headquarters. The parents of the 14-year-old boy [who was shot] were so distraught that they and their family members were threatening to go to the KDP headquarters with guns to express their outrage at the murder of their only child. There were rumors that other people were threatening to torch the KDP headquarters.

By the time we made it to the city center, the students had finished their demonstration. It seems they had two hours there without any major incident.

After a while, we headed over to the Rizgari bus station to take a bus home. Then the shooting began. The bus was re-routed and more armed soldiers were heading up Salim St in fast moving vehicles. We heard shooting even close to our house but there are no reports yet about any shooting other than in the area of the KDP headquarters.

Reports on twitter are now saying that twelve people are injured including three journalists. Some are bullet wounds and two Asaish have been injured by rocks. There are also reports that the Special Forces military, some of whom are PUK and some KDP Peshmerga are fighting with each other because some of them are refusing to fire at the demonstrators.…

The sad issue here is that the KRG has put on a face of stability, security, and democracy. They have invited the world to come and explore the wonders of Iraqi Kurdistan. They have enticed investors from all over the world to come here. The face of stability, security, and democracy is quickly eroding as the ruling parties have insisted on answering the calls for justice with firepower, which seems to get more and more lethal each day.