The Unusual Uprising in Iraqi Kurdistan, Two Years On

“Under Fire in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Extract from The Fourth Estate in Iraqi Kurdistan, a film by Rozh Ahmad

On February 16th, 2011, in solidarity with the mass uprisings sweeping the Middle East, Kurds took to the streets of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan and the following day demanded an end to their one and only official autonomous government, just recently established after nearly a century of struggle.

The Pentagon was still in shock over the “Arab awakening,” wondering what had triggered this relentless turmoil against some of its closest allies, like Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt, when Kurdish protesters amassed in central Sulaymaniyah, the second largest Kurdish city in Iraq, to boycott their own US-backed establishment, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The KRG is controlled by the two long-established and pro-Western Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by KRG President Masoud Barzani, both of whom have accumulated records of repressive rule since they took power after the Kurdish uprising of 1991 against the former regime of Saddam Hussein.  In 1994, power struggle led them into a four-year-long civil war that resulted in the killing of an estimated 10,000 people on both sides.  Since the 1998 reconciliation, they have together run the KRG in post-occupation Iraq through a “Strategic Unity” pact.  Recent regional election results indicate that they enjoy substantial support among Iraqi Kurds; however, 2011 demonstrators described their rule as “nepotistic and authoritarian.”

Roots of the Demonstrations

It was a typical afternoon in February when people atypically assembled and marched through the streets of central Sulaymaniyah in solidarity with the peoples of Egypt and Tunisia, whom they had only seen on their news screens, but with whom they shared one common goal: to achieve what they called “democracy,” in the face of what they denounced as “nepotistic, autocratic and authoritarian” rule.  Despite the dangers ahead of a demonstration of the kind in Iraqi Kurdistan, they seemed well aware of the heavy price needed to be paid for such a goal.  The following day, on February 17th, 2011, demonstrators marched toward the headquarters of the ruling KDP situated at Sulaymaniyah’s Salim Street.  After a short stone-throwing confrontation between the demonstrators and the armed men on the rooftop of the KDP building, the guards indiscriminately opened fire on the demonstration, killing a young demonstrator on the spot and injuring 60 others, including one journalist.

Outraged by what they had just witnessed, in the exact style of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the demonstrators chose to stay overnight at Sulaymaniyah’s central Sera Square, by then renamed “Freedom Square,” from where they announced an indefinite sit-in demonstration against the KRG, which lasted for two months.  This was the beginning of what the Kurds in Iraq now dub the “February 17th Revolution,” or the “February 17th Events,” depending on one’s political outlook.

It is still unclear who first provoked the violence and who threw the first stone at whom.  The KDP claimed: “Demonstrators had first thrown the stones and then tried to storm the building, so the guards only defended themselves.”  The demonstrators, however, denied the KDP claim, saying, “It is total fabrication, video footage bears witness to the facts. . .  A self-acclaimed ‘democratic’ government shall never answer its unarmed citizens with live round bullets and kill its own people, like they did on February 17th [2011].”

At first, the official Kurdish opposition parties and groups were reluctant to join in, and some of them even condemned the demonstrators.  In a statement broadcasted on the opposition TV station, the Kurdistan News Network (KNN), on February 17th, Nawshirwan Mustafa, who is the head of the liberal opposition Movement for Change (Gorran), described the demonstrators as “insurgents.”  Others, like the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), stayed neutral.  But soon both organizations changed their positionS and openly supported the demand of the demonstrators to bring down the government.  Mustafa later paid a visit to Sulaymaniyah’s “Freedom Square,” where he gave a public speech in which he declared his full support for the sit-in demonstration.  Later, the KIU too voiced their support for the demands raised by the demonstration.

Pro-government media outlets tied to the ruling parties called the demonstrators “Islamic fundamentalists and extremists,” some even choosing to call them “terrorists,” though many had joined the demonstration from across the political spectrum.  As well as the liberal Gorran and Islamic KIU, leading political organizers of the sit-in demonstration included leftwing and radical secularist parties, such as the Worker-communist Party of Kurdistan (WKCP) and the Union of Communists in Iraq.  Additionally, high-profile secular intellectuals were also involved in organizing and leading the sit-in demonstration.  Rebin Hardi was one of those, and he was later reportedly arrested and severely beaten by members of the security forces.

The demonstration soon swept and reached other major Kurdish towns, except the cities of Erbil and Duhok, both of which are well-known KDP strongholds, thus, heavily controlled.  Despite several attempts by activists and local youth groups to join the call for a nationwide anti-government demonstration in solidarity with the sit-in demonstration in Sulaymaniyah, only a handful of congregations took place in the areas controlled by the KDP, and they were all quickly confronted by the party’s forces.


Sulaymaniyah came under a military siege several days after the sit-in demonstration was announced on February 17th.  During the siege, massive human rights violations were committed against protesters and local journalists at the hands of gunmen belonging to the main Kurdish security forces, the Asayish forces of the PUK and the Zeravani of the KDP.  The unrests eventually resulted in the killing of ten demonstrators, a few of them only aged sixteen or under, who were shot dead in public by members of the Asayish and the Zeravani in Sulaymaniyah and elsewhere.  Others were captured and tortured on the spot, regardless of who they were, like Hardi, who is a renowned Kurdish secularist intellectual.  In the final days of the demonstration in late April 2011, Sulaymaniyah’s Emergency Hospital confirmed: “In the last two months, 1,000 people have been treated here for rifle shot wounds.  They were wounded during the unrests.”

The perpetrators are yet to be arrested, even though video footage recorded by onlookers (which we cannot independently verify) shows armed forces randomly shooting at demonstrators in Sulaymaniyah and the towns of Kalar and Chamchamal.

“At the beginning, on February 16th for instance, we weren’t an anti-government movement, we just peacefully walked out of our classrooms to show solidarity with the people of Egypt and elsewhere,” said Sarah Ahmed Ali, an ex-student of Sulaymaniyah University, one of the organizers of the student walkouts.  “It was an entirely peaceful movement, but the brutality of the security forces on February 17th transformed it into an anti-establishment movement.  We then demanded reforms, but the endless violence shown by the Asayish and Zeravani forces finally led the people to demand regime change.”

Fearing for her life after the two-month-long sit-in demonstration was confronted by military forces, the tents of the protesters at “Freedom Square” were burned at night, and some were allegedly “kidnapped and arrested at their homes and workplaces,” Ms. Ali fled Kurdistan for Europe.

“February to May was reminiscent of the poignant days in the past under the notorious regime of Saddam Hussein,” she said.  “It brought back bitter memories.  No one dared to leave their homes when the night was still young.  People went to bed fearing for the lives of their brothers and relatives involved in the demonstration.  It was like a curfew back in the day, all over again.”

As well as demonstrators, journalists too came under fire from the forces belonging to the KDP and the PUK.  Figures published by the Metro Centre to Defend Journalists in Kurdistan in 2012 revealed: “Violations against journalists were unprecedented during clampdown on anti-government protests.  From February 17th to May 3rd last year [2011], 230 journalists had been abused in various ways.  Some were shot at.”

According to Raman Gharib, then Director of Metro Centre, “Some journalists were purposely shot at by the security forces only for having tried to report the unfolding events.  Four of those journalists registered by our organization were wounded by rifle bullets of the security forces.”

Gharib was also severely beaten by the security forces in central Sulaymaniyah on February 17th, 2012, when he tried to report on a congregation at Sera Square that attempted to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the sit-in demonstration.

“It Decayed Old-fashioned Nationalism”

The question remains how and why Iraqi Kurds, historically known as devoted nationalists in their long and bitter struggles for independence, protested and called for an end to their one and only official semi-autonomous government that they had just recently established in Iraq.  They had suffered national oppression throughout the painful history of modern Iraq, from the British mandate of 1918 through the darkest days when Saddam Hussein tightened his grip on power, until he was ousted in the 2003 Iraq War, after which Kurds were finally granted autonomy by the post-occupation Iraqi government in 2005.

“In the last 20 years, the Kurdish ruling parties have shown themselves to be incapable of brining about democracy and justice, as everything is reserved for the interests of the very few in power, the top politicians,” said Jawad Mella, president of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNC) in Europe, adding that the Kurdish region is “unbelievably rich” in natural resources, “yet people live in a miserable situation.  It is capitalism but ruled with an iron grip, it is an authoritarian rule. Kurdistan has enormous oil and gas resources but the wealth is also unfairly distributed, there is no welfare state or anything of this sort, only the officials and their families benefit from the region’s resources.”

Diyako Ahmed, a Kurdish political analyst based in Paris, believes that the demonstrations led to an “internationalist awakening” for the Kurds in Iraq, “for the first time ever,” motivated by the mass uprisings sweeping the Middle East.  He said the demonstrations were unique in the sense that they “decayed the ideas of old-school Kurdish nationalism” among Iraqi Kurds.

“Kurds in Iraq were officially semi-autonomous for six years by that time and they often tended to respect the ruling parties regardless of how they ruled because of the constant threat posed by neighboring countries,” Ahmed said.  “Yet in 2011, they unexpectedly chose to be part of a pan-Middle Eastern movement striving for democracy and justice, not nationalism.  No one really expected this to happen there.  They were unique demonstrations because they opened a new chapter in Kurdish politics.”


In the last few days, the Kurdish security forces have been on alert once again, as Kurdish youth groups are announcing “vengeance” on social media sites.  Privately-owned newspapers in Kurdistan have also reported that the Asayish forces in Sulaymaniyah have threatened to arrest anyone producing or circulating leaflets and posters commemorating the two-year anniversary of the February 17th demonstrations.  But even so, the city’s walls are plastered with posters of those killed during the unrests.

Last Sunday, February 10th, 2013, 17 shots were reportedly fired at the KDP headquarters building in the town of Halabja.  The party’s organ newspaper and their shadow media outlets reported that it was “an unknown drunk,” but a youth group calling itself “the Youth Group of Halabja” claimed responsibility for the shooting and announced in a statement circulated on social media sites: “It was to remind them that the anniversary of our revolution is upcoming.  17 bullets were fired at them for the February 17th Revolution.  We shall continue the struggle until we bring down this criminal government so justice finally prevails in Kurdistan.”

It is uncertain whether any major demonstrations will take place in Iraqi Kurdistan during this February or in the near future, comparable to the radicalization witnessed in 2011, yet Ms. Ali, an ex-student demonstrator during the February uprising, said that she is “optimistic” and that anti-government demonstrations may come back on the streets anytime, “because people aren’t afraid anymore.  No matter what the KRG does and the money it spends to fabricate the stories and buy people, the February Revolution will come back because it broke apart all the fears and excuses we Kurds had for this ruthless government.  That is why I am overtly optimistic.”

Rozh Ahmad is a British freelance journalist of Kurdish origin.  See, also, Rozh Ahmad, “Syrian Kurds — a Photo Essay” (MRZine, 20 January 2013); and Rozh Ahmad, “The Kurdish Rebellion in Syria: Toward Irreversible Liberation” (MRZine, 23 January 2013).

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