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Memorial Gathering in Iraqi Kurdistan Turns to Violence

By Robert F. Worth


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 on the anniversary Thursday, beating back government guards to storm and destroy a museum dedicated to the memory of the Halabja attack. The violence, pitting furious locals against a much smaller force of armed security men, was the most serious popular challenge yet to the political parties that have ruled Iraqi Kurdistan for the past 15 years.

Coming 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 their 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 PUK 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 in a crowd of furious, chanting young men on their way to the museum. “After 18 years, Halabja is still full of debris from the war, we don’t even have decent roads.”

There have been several protests in recent months against both the PUK, 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 in Halabja on Thursday.

Apparently rattled by the prospect of publicity, party militia members twice tried to confiscate the cameras of a New York Times photographer who was leaving Halabja by car Thursday evening, and only desisted 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 PUK 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.