In Iraqi Kurdistan, Politicians’ Holiday Greetings Indicate Depth Of Division

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In past years the various political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan would always send each other a letter of greeting at Eid al-Fitr, the festival that ends Ramadan, a month of religious commemoration. For Europeans, it’s a little like sending a Christmas card to one’s business colleagues and rivals.

But this year, the letters that political parties in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan are sending one another are just a little different – mainly this is because of an increase in antipathy and a breakdown in relationships after, firstly, the referendum on Kurdish independence last September, and secondly, the Iraqi elections, held May 12 this year.  

Things have become so tense that even common courtesies have ended.

Reading between the lines of the Eid greetings, they differ from previous years: usually they talk about solving problems in the period following the religious holiday. This year, the seasonal greetings are more critical – and that’s if they were sent at all.  

The region’s largest opposition party, known as the Change movement, didn’t send anything to the other large parties in the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. In its Eid message, the party said that they hoped Eid would herald a new phase for the Kurdish people, and that there would peace, serenity and justice. “Since the day it was created, and as it has ever since, the Change movement extends its hand in cooperation and harmony, to any party or democratic project, that serves the best interests of our people and coexistence,” the party wrote.

Senior local politician, Barham Salih, who headed a new group in these elections, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, posted a letter on his Facebook page, that included a subtle message about the recent accusations of electoral fraud in Iraqi Kurdistan; smaller parties have accused the KDP and PUK of electoral fraud after the smaller parties got far fewer votes than they expected in May’s federal elections. “BY respecting the will of the people and protecting citizens’ votes, the path is corrected and the cycle of crisis comes to an end,” Salih’s letter said. “It is time for Iraqis to live in peace.”

The head of the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, Ali Babir, broadcast a message on his party’s TV channel, praying for the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq and hoping they would be able to find a way out of the current situation.

“On this occasion we have to reconcile with ourselves, with our people and with our God,” Salahuddin Bahauddin, the head of Kurdistan Islamic Union, said during an Eid service in the city of Sulaymaniyah. “Influential people and parties need to admit they have made mistakes. Life cannot go on this way and our people deserve better.”

 

Eid greetings in Iraqi Kurdistan (Photo: Hama Sur)

 

Senior PUK and KDP politicians also posted season’s greetings but, unlike their angry opponents in the smaller parties, there was no hint of any meaningful political message in them. They were more like the standard greetings of years past. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, simply congratulated the Muslims of the world on Eid.

“The relationships between the KDP, PUK and Change movement are bad,” agrees Mardin Ibrahim, a political studies expert at Cihan University in Sulaymaniyah. “Things have become so tense that even common courtesies have ended.”

The relationship between the Change movement and the PUK has reached another low. The Change movement was close to the PUK at one point – the opposition party is actually an offshoot of the PUK, which split off and began campaigning on an anti-corruption platform. But there have been no official meetings between the two for several months now and the senior members did not visit one another during Eid. When one of the founders of the PUK, Adel Murad, passed away in mid-May, shortly after the federal elections, the Change movement did not send anyone to represent them at the PUK memorial, saying that members of the PUK had attacked their Sulaymaniyah headquarters on May 12 and had also committed electoral fraud.

The reasons behind this deterioration in relations are varied, Ismail Namiq, a senior member of the Change movement, told NIQASH. “Pre-existing political problems, the monopoly of power that the PUK and the KDP have, their lack of flexibility when dealing with other parties, their arrogance and the way they think they own Kurdistan, their bad management – also the way they undermine other parties and do not consult them on anything,” Namiq said, as if he were auditing a bad marriage.

According to my information, most of the Kurdish parties exchanged Eid greetings – especially in Kirkuk. But perhaps the media have not covered this issue.

“When they call for unity, they only mean that everyone else should do as they say, ”Namiq continued. Our vision is fundamentally different, he added, before saying again that the Change movement felt that the PUK had attacked them. “Our relationship with the PUK is extremely bad right now,” he concluded.  

According to my information, most of the Kurdish parties exchanged Eid greetings – especially in Kirkuk. But perhaps the media have not covered this issueThe hostility is so bad right now that everyone is ignoring any common goals they may once have had, Ariz Abdallah, a senior member of the PUK, told NIQASH.

“Conflict and disagreement is normal in politics but when one reaches a point where even common goals are ignored, then everyone gets hurt,” Abdallah argued. He isn’t too worried however. “Our relationship with the Change movement has its ups and downs,” he says. “But in the end, we can always reach an understanding.”

The KDP has had a bad relationship with the Change movement and other opposition parties for months now and recent events haven’t done anything to improve that. In fact, perhaps the only party that the KDP is a little closer to at the moment is the PUK, their traditional rivals. After the ill-fated independence referendum, the PUK and KDP slung insults and accusations at each other, with both blaming the other for the loss of Kurdish control over certain areas as a result of the referendum. But the federal elections have forced them to put aside those differences somewhat, as both have sent delegations to Baghdad to take part in the formation of the next Iraqi government. Kurdish politicians often fight at home but then present  a united front in Baghdad, when they have to deal with the rest of Iraq.

Contrary to what other politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan are saying, the KDP doesn’t appear to think there is a problem. “As the KDP, we do not have any abnormal relations with any party,” Mohammed Khorshid Tawfiq, a senior member of the KDP, says.

Before Eid, the KDP had ongoing contact with other parties and after Eid, it has sought to bring all Kurdish parties together, Tawfiq insisted, especially in order to go to Baghdad united. “According to my information, most of the Kurdish parties exchanged Eid greetings – especially in Kirkuk. But perhaps the media have not covered this issue because of the current situation,” he suggested. Tawfiq also blamed the breakdown in relations between the PUK and the Change movement. “Whenever that happens, they always add the KDP’s name to the discussion,” he said.


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, Final Exam Questions Sold for $100, Posted On Facebook

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At the end of May, around 230,000 students in senior grades in Iraqi Kurdistan started taking final exams. The grades these young people in the semi-autonomous northern region get, will play a major role in their futures – so the tests are important.

The exams, held on May 27, start at 8.30 in the morning and as they do, the local authorities have been known to interrupt Internet access. This is supposedly so that students who already finished their exams and leave the examination rooms don’t get to circulate the questions or any advice to those students still working.

The students are handed the exam questions in an envelope. On the outside of the envelope are written the words: Very Confidential. Unfortunately, this year, that description has been disproven, as exam questions and answers were leaked on local social media accounts – again.

Screenshots showing the exam papers appeared two or so hours before the first exams were taken. Several teachers have complained about it.

“What an English exam!” one teacher, who could only be identified by his initials, BK, posted on Facebook. “The answers were posted two and a half hours before the exam was taken.”

Asked more about who they were getting the questions from, they replied: “We are in Kurdistan and everything is possible.”

BK posted screen shots from the account that had leaked the exam materials but, perhaps because this is an extremely controversial issue that has been causing problems in Iraqi Kurdistan for years and seen multiple arrests and dismissals, the original account that displayed the materials closed down.

Another teacher in the Juman neighbourhood in Erbil, Tekoshar Hussein, also protested online on June 6, talking about how exam questions were leaking. ”Unfortunately questions are being leaked every day and are being accessed easily by students,” the teacher said.

“The last people who get the exam questions are the teachers and the supervisors of the exam halls,” Hussein told NIQASH, adding that he had seen students showing the answers on their mobile phones to the exam supervisors, shortly before testing was to begin. The students told the supervisors that the answers had been posted, several hours before the exam.

NIQASH’s correspondent decided to try and find out more and befriended or liked several of the Facebook pages known to dispense the cheating exam answers. This meant staying awake almost all night. It’s common knowledge among the students that the pages will post the illicit information in the very early morning, just before the exams, so that the education authorities don’t get a chance to change anything.

On the night of June 5, questions for a senior school chemistry exam were published and on the night of June 6, the questions for a senior school English exam were published on the Facebook and Instagram pages. Both showed up on Facebook two or so hours before the exams were due to take place and before the Internet services were throttled. After they were posted, the leaked exams were then circulated by different students on social media.

 Screenshots of the information that was posted were later compared to the government-issued exams after the tests had taken place: They were genuine, the questions were all identical.

NIQASH then contacted the various different sites that had posted the exams to help students cheat. Given the sensitivity of the material, it was difficult to get any answers from those managing the Facebook pages and Instagram accounts involved. However eventually one of the Facebook supervisors agreed to talk, after being promised anonymity.

“We have a relationship with a person who sends us the exam questions on Viber,” the page supervisor told NIQASH. “We pay them US$100, or we send credits to their phone. That’s how we got the questions.”

Asked more about who they were getting the questions from, the page supervisor only replied: “We are in Kurdistan and everything is possible.” No further details were given.

NIQASH also questioned a number of students, all on condition of anonymity. One said he had received questions from maths and English exams from a teacher, via Facebook Messenger. “The teacher did this to ensure that myself and some of my friends would get good grades in the exams,” he explained.

Another older student said he was part of a special Facebook group that had been set up specifically so that exam questions could be circulated among the members. He received the exam questions he needed at 6am on the morning of the exam. At first, he didn’t take them seriously, he says because he thought it was either a joke or a plan to deceive cheaters. But when he eventually took the test, he found that almost all of the questions in his maths exam were the same as the ones he had seen online earlier.

 

 

A further 18-year-old student told NIQASH she had heard about the leaked questions and she had heard many rumours. She says she also had the opportunity to look at them but she did not – because she was too busy studying. That may have been wise – there were certainly also old exam questions and materials that had nothing to do with this year’s tests online too.

Local education authorities’ rules say that an education department representative from each district gets the exam questions in a sealed, signed envelope about three or four hours before the testing begins. The representative then delivers the questions to examination halls and exam supervisors at 8.30am.

This means the questions must be being leaked between being given to the district representatives and their delivery to premises where exams will be held. But one might also speculate that the leaks are made at certain times to deflect suspicions from one group or cast them on another one.

 This isn’t the first time that exam questions have been leaked in Iraq, or in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1994, a whole grade had to repeat their exams because of this. It is common practice for the government to turn off Internet servers during exams. And two years ago 77 people were fired from their jobs in education in Iraqi Kurdistan – including senior managers and teachers – and some were even arrested. Exams were not retaken in that case.

The law will be brought to bear on those who were behind the leaks.

The local education ministry is very sensitive about the subject.

Of course we know about the leaks, admits Shirko Hama Amin, an Iraqi Kurdish politician who sits on the education committee in the regional parliament. “But we haven’t spoken to the media about it as yet because we are worried about the students’ state of mind. But we have submitted all the evidence to the ministry of education and we will meet with the responsible ministers and with the exam supervisors about this topic,” Hama Amin told NIQASH.

At the moment, education officials are not confirming anything though. “No questions have leaked and we reject these accusations,” Karim Dizayee, the official supervising exams in Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH. “There could be some irresponsible teacher who took photos of the exam questions and then posted them online, while the students were actually taking the tests,” he suggests. But that is all.

Once the politicians and the supervisors meet, if any wrong doing is confirmed, then it will be up to local prosecutors to decide how much further this goes.

Of course, his office will be investigating, says Dildash Fayez, a spokesperson for the public prosecutor’s office. “But even if we do find evidence of leaks, the exams will not be held again,” Fayez concludes. “It would be impossible. But the law will be brought to bear on those who were behind the leaks,” he promises.


source: Niqash

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This Month In Fake News, In Iraqi Kurdistan

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, Facebook and YouTube continue to be the main hosts for erroneous or mistaken, as well as deliberately faked, news reports. Of the 69 posts that the NIQASH team debunked this month, the ones that got the most attention involved ongoing tensions between Kurdish and Arab military in the disputed city of Kirkuk as well as Kurdish-Turkish fighting across the border in Syria. The first shots have been fired in Kurdish elections too, as politicians try to defame the competition, as the Iraqi elections near.

The presence of Iraqi troops and Shiite Muslim militias in Kirkuk is continuing to be a source of false reports posted on Facebook. One picture showed the Iranian military mastermind, Qassim al-Soleimani, in Kirkuk, claiming he was there in October last year supervising the Iraqi takeover of territory the Kurdish military had been controlling up until then. Given the tensions still ongoing in Kirkuk, the picture caused a lot of anger. However the picture actually dates back to 2015.

Another picture that got a lot of attention was of a burned-out car allegedly left behind after fighting in Kirkuk. But it turned out the original picture came from an auto accident in the Karmayan area: A driver had dropped his cigarette and ended up setting fire to his car. The Karmayan police originally published the picture.

 

 

This month, there was a not a day that passed without Kurdish Facebook users posting reports and pictures from the Kurdish-controlled Afrin area, under siege from Turkish troops, in Syria. Many of these were not actually from Afrin at all but came from other fights, or other times.  

One of the videos that caused particular controversy in Iraqi Kurdistan had locals criticizing the region’s former resident, Massoud Barzani. In the video, the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks Barzani’s name. And the Kurdish subtitles said that Barzani had called Erdogan to congratulate him on his victory over the Syrian Kurds in Afrin.

Many locals in Iraqi Kurdistan thought that they should be going to the aid of the Syrian Kurds but the politics that the Afrin group represents are anathema to Barzani and his party. The video appeared to confirm that Barzani was pleased to see the other Kurds defeated by the Turkish.

However upon closer inspection, the video actually dates back to April 2017. In the video, Erdogan does speak Barzani’s name, but it is in connection to something totally different, having to do with Russia, the US and the attack on Sinjar by the extremist Islamic State group.

 

 

Another significant event in Iraqi Kurdistan this month involved the airports in northern Iraq. The government in Baghdad had closed Kurdish borders to international flights and this had cost the Kurdish millions in revenues, as well as delays and much inconvenience.

This move by Baghdad also caused a lot of anger among Kurdish locals. Among the posts on Facebook was a video that showed Iraqi soldiers entering the airport in the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

Further research quickly found that the video actually came from a different event altogether. Senior Iraqi military commander, Talib Shaghati, had gone to a military headquarters – it was not even an airport – to visit some of his soldiers and eat lunch with them. The video had originally been posted on the Facebook page belonging to the commander of Iraq’s special forces.

One of the soldiers who was there confirmed the visit to Niqash, saying that their commander had visited on January 19, 2018, to celebrate the soldiers’ victory over the Islamic state, or IS, group.

 

 

Also very much in the news in Iraqi Kurdistan were protests by civil servants, such as teachers and staff from the health sector, who were demanding that the Kurdish authorities pay them long-overdue salaries.

After some of the protests were broken up violently, Facebook users started a campaign that protested about insulting teachers, as well as suggesting how one should be more courteous and kind to those in such a worthy profession.

As part of that, one photo that got a lot of traction showed the king of Jordan, Abdullah II bin al-Hussein, kissing a teacher’s hand. It provoked many reactions. But perhaps not surprisingly, it too was fake. It was originally a photo of the Turkish foreign minister kissing the hand of an old man.

As the Iraqi elections near, it seems certain that there will be a higher volume of false reports about politicians and their campaigning. One of the first in Iraqi Kurdistan showed the late leader of the oppositional Change movement, Nawshirwan Mustafa, playing computer games. The caption claimed that, instead of working for the Kurdish people, the head of the party with an anti-corruption platform, was too busy playing video games.

In fact, the picture had been manipulated. In the original Mustafa is reading the news online, on his screen, not entertaining himself.  


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, Publishing Business Faces Final Chapter

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Before the financial crisis began in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, there had been dozens of publishing houses, both small and large, plying their trade. But since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2014, they have been declining steadily.

According to numbers provided by the semi-autonomous region’s General Directorate of Libraries, there were 2,809 newly printed books registered in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013. In 2017, that number had dropped to 808. Even though the numbers don’t account for all the books published here – some are simply released without a library registration number – that does indicate a significant reduction.

It is true that the number of printed books has decreased. But in many ways that is OK because now a better quality of books is being published. 

Some of the books being published in Iraqi Kurdistan were written by local authors and others were translations. But book sellers did well because locals had extra money to spend on things like this. Now it seems books have become a luxury that many can no longer afford.

“Reading doesn’t fill the stomach,” locals say, meaning that in a time of limited resources, they’d rather spend their money on more essential things. Add to this the fact that locals can also find plenty to read online and that reading has never been a great intellectual tradition in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan anyway, and all this spells trouble for the publishing business.

A lecturer at the University of Salahaddin in Erbil, Frsat Rozhbaiany, says that often teachers will prescribe a reading list for students – but they won’t encourage students to do anything further than the bare minimum. Which accounts for a lack of enthusiasm and support for local books.

There is a growing list of casualties. Aras Press was a well-known publisher that had been getting support directly from Iraqi Kurdistan’s government. But now there is a big padlock on its doors and no books have been published there in six years.

In May 2017, Hazar Majid, the owner of the Andisheh publishing house, announced that he was in debt. Part of his business involved a cultural centre and a kind of lending library but he said on his Facebook page that he could no longer afford to stay open and would have to start selling off the furniture. In his message, he asked locals to help him stay open and as yet, the associated Andisheh Cultural Centre still exists.  

However, Andisheh has gone from being one of the most prolific publishing houses and the host of many events, to virtual silence.

Government-run publishers are not putting out the same number of books as they used to either. Some of the region’s universities as well as ministries of education and culture used to publish their own books but that number has decreased too, says Nawzat Jalal, head of libraries in Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, the ministry of culture only printed ten books in the last year, Jalal notes.

Xazalnus is another well-known local publisher, founded by two young men six years ago. It had been printing dozens of books but is now struggling, the owners say.

To diversify the owners started a small cinema for Kurdish and international films that had been translated. “There has been a decrease in the number of people who buy our books,” Dana Ismail, one of the owners of Xazalnus, told NIQASH. “But we have not received a single dinar from any party other than our readers. It is they who keep us going.”

A number of booksellers in Iraqi Kurdistan say that the only books people are buying at the moment are textbooks. Store owners in Erbil report two kinds of customers: ordinary readers and then university students. At the moment, the students outnumber the other group by a lot, they say.

One of the only optimists in the business is Soran Aziz, founder of the Maly Wafaey Foundation, which is still publishing. “It is true that the number of printed books has decreased,” Aziz told NIQASH. “But in many ways that is OK because now a better quality of books is being published. Despite poor economic conditions, books are still being sold.”


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, Number of Critics Of Religion Growing Online

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Up until relatively recently it was not acceptable to criticize religion openly in Iraqi Kurdistan. But this is starting to change and being more openly questioning about Islam is something of a social trend now, in some circles.

Part of it has to do with the security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State. The group, which based their manifesto on a fantastical and often invented version of Sunni Islam, is usually used by critics of religion to make their point.

Hostility to religion has somehow become fashionable.

Another aspect is the expanded possibility for airing views that are other than mainstream on local social media. In Iraqi Kurdistan, those who want to criticize Islam in a Muslim-majority society do so mostly on social media sites like Facebook. Some use their real names – often they are Kurds who live outside of Iraq – and others hide their identity because of the controversial nature of the criticism.

There are dozens of pages on Facebook that publish religious criticism and there are even some that take this kind of content from other languages and translate it into Kurdish.

Of course, being critical of religion is not new in Iraqi Kurdistan. There have always been secular individuals here. But one could argue that these kinds of arguments were not expressed as openly, or as much, as they are now.

For example, in 2010, a well-known Kurdish author and poet, Qubady Jalyzada, published a book, in which one poem saw him accused of blasphemy. Sales of the book were banned after clerics protested about it and copies of the book were seized by security forces in the Iraqi Kurdish capital, Erbil.

Jalyzada told NIQASH he was summoned to court more than once about the book but was eventually pardoned. “However, my book was still banned, and the poetry never did see the light of day,” Jalyzada complains.

This year there is another writer, Sarkaw Hadi Gorani, a Kurdish playwright who lives in France, undertaking similarly allegedly-sacrilegious work. Gorani, who broadcasts live on social media, says he is not an enemy of religion, merely an analytical critic of it.

He says he just wants to raise awareness about the potential damage that religion can do. “I see religion as a social institution and because I come from a Muslim country, and because that had an impact on me, I talk about Islam – because that’s what affected me,” Gorani told NIQASH.

Having said that, it’s definitely not a mainstream opinion by any stretch of the imagination. “Those who attack religion represent only their own opinions and not society,” argues Ameer Othman Mawloud, a senior official tasked with encouraging religious coexistence in Iraqi Kurdistan, adding that his department has sought legal advice on how to prosecute dissenters.

Additionally, when an individual criticizes Islam on social media they are usually rewarded with a slew of fury, anger and indignation from other commenters.

Another young Kurd who has been critical of religion online, Fateh Mahmoud, says that some of his relatives have now blocked him on Facebook because of what he has said about Islam.

“Hostility to religion has somehow become fashionable,” says Awara Najim, a young man from Darbandikhan who often writes back to online debaters with a pro-religious argument. “I worry that if these people get any power they will kill Muslims and burn mosques.”


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, A New Generation Takes Power

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In saying that he was stepping down, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has moved in another direction too, towards the transition of power between Iraqi Kurdistan’s older “mountain generation” toward the region’s younger “city generation”.

The description, mountain generation, refers to the older political and military leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan, those who struggled for Kurdish rights and independence from the 1960s onwards. The saying “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” refers to the flight of Kurdish rebels into the mountains, and their use of the mountains as a guerilla base. This generation includes the likes of Jalal Talabani, Nawshirwan Mustafa and Massoud Barzani. The first two are recently deceased and the fact that Barzani has said he would relinquish power means that the biggest, most senior names in the mountain generation have now passed out of the spotlight.

The era of charismatic leaders is coming to an end. The leaders who are coming next are not as charismatic.

For the past 26 years, all of the important decisions about Iraqi Kurdistan have been made by members of the mountain generation.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s city generation refers to younger Kurdish figures, those who did not participate directly in any Kurdish revolution or fighting, as they were just children or perhaps not even born in some cases. If they were around, they were either growing up in the cities or else living in safety outside of Iraq.

Often these individuals are the children or grandchildren of the mountain generation. They include the likes of Barzani’s nephew, the region’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, and his other son, Masrour Barzani, head of the security forces as well as Talabani’s sons, Qubad and Bafel, and Talabani’s nephew. All of these men hold senior positions either in the Iraqi Kurdish government or within security forces.  While members of the mountain generation still hold ranking positions throughout Iraqi Kurdistan, the leadership positions are now mostly occupied by the city generation.

“The era of charismatic leaders is coming to an end,” states Fareed Asasard, a senior member of the party Talabani used to head, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK; Asasard is considered a member of the mountain generation. “The leaders who are coming next are not as charismatic. They will distinguish between partisan affiliations and if they can make this work, then their main concerns will be how to maintain prosperity and peace.”

“The mountain generation sought political gains and played upon their legitimacy through revolution to do so,” argues Amin Faraj Sharif, a professor of political science at Salahaddin University in Erbil. “The new generation should serve citizens better. The citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan demand prosperity and peace now and they are ready to move beyond the old classics.”

Locals hope that this changing of the guard might bring a better political and economic situation to Iraqi Kurdistan. They hope that this new generation might be less set in their ways, less nationalistic and not as stubborn as their elders, who grew up fighting for Kurdish rights.

 “It doesn’t matter whether those in power are of the city generation or the mountain generation,” says Ari Harsin, a leading member of the party Barzani leads, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and a former soldier. “What really matters is how the person thinks and some members of the city generation have empty minds.”

 

Too many grey heads: Massoud Barzani (center) recently stepped down.

 

Harsin believes nationalism and looking after the best interests of the Kurdish people go hand in hand. “No matter what, it will be difficult for the new generation to solve Kurdistan’s problems.”

It is quite possible that the recently deceased leader of Iraqi Kurdistan’s main opposition party, Goran, or the Change movement, was also partially responsible for the growing influence of the city generation. Nawshirwan Mustafa was the leader of the Change movement and he encouraged many younger members to take on responsibilities – people like the speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, and his deputy.

Ribawar Hamad, the spokesperson for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic group of parties says his colleagues have tried to maintain a balance between the mountain and the city. “This is our vision for the slow change of power,” Hamad told NIQASH.

It’s also possible to see the devolution of power from the mountain to the city outside of local political parties.

In the run up to the referendum on Kurdish independence, Shaswar Abdulwahid, a local businessman and owner of the NRT media outlet, started a campaign named Not Now. A critic of the government, the campaign referred to what many people thought was the wrong timing for the independence referendum. Since then, Abdulwahid has started a new political movement called New Generation, off the back of the Not Now campaign.

From now until the next elections, the city generation has eight months to show what it can do now that the mountain generation is taking a back seat. Two major issues will need to be confronted almost immediately: The fact that many locals have not received their salary from the state for months and how to stop Baghdad from exerting even more pressure on the Iraqi Kurdish region.

However, there is one major sticking point. While the city generation may be younger and in some ways, think differently than the mountain generation, they have certainly been around for most of the important political decisions of the past decade or so. They did not all hold senior positions then, but they participated in politics then too. This is why some locals feel that the city generation must share the blame for any bad decisions made by their forerunners.  


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, Enemy Of My Enemy Has Always Been A Friend

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The problems in northern Iraq, and in particular in the city of Kirkuk, have led various Kurdish politicians and parties to bandy about accusations of treachery and betrayal.

The two largest political parties in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, have both said the other is largely to blame for what is happening in northern Iraq now. Over the past few years, and particularly since the security crisis sparked by the extremist group known as the Islamic State, the Iraqi Kurdish have been expanding their zone of influence outside of the lines of the region they legally control. Over the past few weeks, those areas and others have been retaken by the Iraqi military.

Everyone is talking about unity, and calling for unity, but nobody is putting any effort into achieving it.

Directly and indirectly, the KDP has said the PUK is taking part in a plot against them, by collaborating with the Iraqi government, Shiite Muslim militias and Iran. Meanwhile the PUK has said that the KDP is to blame for everything that has transpired because the head of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, pushed so hard for the Iraqi Kurdish to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. They say that pressure brought the Iraqi government down on the Kurdish.

All of the accusations might be partially true. All of them may be partially false. But one thing is for sure: This is not the first time that the Kurdish politicians have engaged in such skulduggery. Although they have been running the Kurdish region side by side for several decades, the two parties were once enemies, on opposite sides of a Kurdish civil war. And both parties have engaged with their enemies before in order to weaken the other.

Kurdish parties have worked with their Iraqi adversaries as well as Iran, Turkey and even Syria to try to eradicate each other. This happened in the 1960s and right up until the Kurdish uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and the formation of what is now known as Iraqi Kurdistan.

For example, in 1993, both the PUK and the KDP agreed with the Turkish military to strike against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK at the same time. The PKK fight for Kurdish independence in Turkey and are considered terrorists by the Turkish government. They were forced to withdraw from Iraq and make peace with the PUK and the KDP.

During the Iraqi Kurdish civil war between the KDP and PUK in the mid-1990s, the KDP actually sought the help of one of the Kurdish people’s greatest enemies, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military, to regain control over the city of Erbil, which was controlled by the PUK at the time. On August 31, 1996, the Iraqi army entered Erbil with tanks and tried to expel the PUK from the city. The PUK were far from innocent: Previously the PUK had sought the aid of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, to help them fight the KDP.

PUK supporters often mention August 31, 1996, as a “day of treason”. But now the KDP are repaying them by describing October 16, 2017, as their “day of treason”.

 

A mural depicting Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons attack on Kurdish Halabja in 1988. Pic: Levi Clancy/Wikimedia Commons

 

“All of these defeats and incidents of treason have meant that Kurdish unity is really still just a mirage,” says Majid Khalil, a professor of history at the University of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is a dream that will be difficult to achieve, he notes.

To locals on the ground, who now not only fear some sort of Iraqi military incursion but must also fret about further infighting between the KDP and PUK, it doesn’t feel like their politicians have learned much over the years.

A number of campaigns have been started by ordinary people that urge Kurdish unity instead of division, calling on all parties involved to halt their course toward mutual destruction.

The reaction to that kind of public desire from politicians has not been surprising: They support the idea, but they have not done very much about it.

“There is a failure to work towards unity because of personal interests,” argues Fadhil Basharati, a senior member of the KDP. “Political parties are more committed to personal and partisan interests than to national or patriotic aspirations,” he told NIQASH, adding that he was still optimistic though.

“Everyone is driven by their own personal interests or their parties’ agendas,” adds Adnan Hama Mina, a leading member of the PUK. “We have to think about what is best for the Kurdish people and go beyond those interests.”

“Everyone is talking about unity, and calling for unity, but nobody is putting any effort into achieving it,” Mina concluded. 


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, A Security Camera On Every Corner

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There is hardly a single street in the semi-autonomous zone of Iraqi Kurdistan where one does not see a raft of security cameras pointed at passers-by. Many of the security cameras are installed by private citizens but in some parts of the region, the security forces responsible for internal regional security, known as the Asayesh, are compelling owners of public buildings and businesses to install them.

Security cameras have been installed on Iraqi Kurdistan’s roads for many years but now the number of public and private security cameras in action is thought to rival camera-per-capita figures for some of the most surveilled cities in the world. In Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan and home to the regional Parliament and other government departments, there are an estimated 8,000 official cameras deployed. The regional Ministry of the Interior plans on erecting another 5,000 cameras on and around main roads in the near future.

Additionally, “anyone who wants to open a store is required to install surveillance cameras or he will not be given permission to open the business,” explains Tariq Nouri, the head of the Asayesh in Erbil. “Companies, restaurants, casinos and residential compounds are all obliged to install security cameras. However owners of private residences can decide for themselves if they wish to do this.”

Additionally, Nouri said, cables for faster Internet are being installed underground, which will make keeping an eye on the various security cameras even easier.

“Surveillance cameras assist us in detecting attacks, especially in crowded areas,” claims Hogir Aziz, the spokesperson for the Erbil police. “We have used the recordings from security cameras after getting court permission.”

Unlike in Erbil, the installation of security cameras is not compulsory in Iraqi Kurdistan’s other major city, Sulaymaniyah.

They don’t violate people’s liberties, they protect their lives.

“We always advise people to install security cameras in their houses or in their neighbourhoods and in markets but we don’t force anyone to do this,” Rzgar Hama Rahim, the spokesperson for the Asayesh in Sulaymaniyah told NIQASH; apparently there was a plan to set up more security cameras in the province but that has been put on hold due to Iraqi Kurdistan’s financial crisis. “Security cameras play an important role in finding criminals and we may be able to reduce the number of crimes committed here because of them. For example, we have found gangs dealing in counterfeit currencies, using security cameras.”

Sarkout Ahmad, a spokesperson for the Sulaymaniyah police, says the cameras are particularly useful for attacks on private homes and for traffic incidents. One of the most recent incidents to illustrate this was a hit and run incident in Erbil on Dec. 25 last year. The police were able to find the driver very quickly.

There are also others profiting from the security cameras. There had been a surge in security camera sales in Iraqi Kurdistan at first but that has changed over the past few years, traders say, also due to the financial crisis.

Farouq Mohammed opened a camera shop in Sulaymaniyah in 2012 and he says that during 2013 and 2014, he sold many of them; most of the ones sold in Iraqi Kurdistan are made in China.

“Shops, supermarkets, barber shops, casinos and many other public businesses need approval from the government and that approval is given on the condition that surveillance cameras are installed,” Mohammed told NIQASH.

Security cameras cost anything between US$25 to US$200 per camera.

Amanj Abdallah, a camera seller from Erbil, has also been selling the surveillance tools since 2012. But after the Asayesh ordered everyone to install security cameras, there has been increased demand, he says. 

Both Abdallah and Mohammed believe the security cameras are useful. However, just as in other countries that have used security cameras, there is no real evidence that the security cameras prevent crime.

 

Security cameras on the roads of the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

Just as in other countries where security cameras are in use, locals in Iraqi Kurdistan have criticized the cameras as an invasion of privacy. While security cameras have played a definitive role in finding perpetrators after a crime is committed and in preventing theft in parking garages and on public transport, they have not been proven to actually prevent criminal or terrorist activity in other countries. While security cameras were very useful following the Boston marathon bombing in 2013 and after terrorist attacks on public transport in London in 2005, they did not, for example, prevent the recent attacks in Paris, in cafes and in a music venue.

Local lawyer Soran Mohammed says the situation is completely different in Iraqi Kurdistan. In developed countries security cameras are used to protect public property and lives whereas in Iraqi Kurdistan, they are just installed to protect the authorities and to ensure that officials are not attacked, he says.

“When a crime is committed against an official, the offender is usually arrested really quickly. But if crimes are committed by anyone suspected of connection to an official – especially in targeted assassinations – none of the suspects are ever arrested. Even though there are security cameras everywhere,” Mohammed says.

“Installing these cameras everywhere is a violation of people’s rights,” he continues. “Anything they do could be used against them. Additionally there is no law here that controls how the cameras are being used.”

There is no single body watching over the security cameras either. Previously the Ministry of the Interior would report to the local parliamentary committee concerned but since Iraqi Kurdistan’s government has not been operating properly for over a year, this has not been happening.

“We don’t know how many cameras there are now because we haven’t had any meetings with the Ministry of the Interior for more than a year,” Ayoub Abdallah, chairman of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament’s Committee on Internal Affairs, Security and Local Councils, told NIQASH.  “These cameras are installed because of security considerations, we are told. But we want to know why there are another 5,000 coming – especially because they are not under our control at all.”

For obvious reasons, the Asayesh refute any criticisms of the security cameras.

“They don’t violate people’s liberties, they protect their lives,” the Erbil Asayesh’s Nouri says.

“The European countries have the most freedom and they too have security cameras,” the Sulaymaniyah Asayesh’s Rahim justifies the cameras. “These cameras are not a violation of personal freedoms. Rather they are a way of maintaining security and stability. That’s not in any way a violation of freedoms.”

Nonetheless the questions from critics remain: If these cameras are so essential to security, then why have they not been used to find the gunmen killing journalists and politicians in what appear to be targeted assassinations? 


source: Niqash

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In Iraqi Kurdistan, A Roman Amphitheatre To Enhance Local Culture

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In an estimated three months’ time the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah will have its own version of Rome’s Colosseum. An arena for theatre and other kinds of entertainment that is being built in the same style as the famous Italian amphitheatre, is intended to be the crowning glory of the province’s Hawary Shar Park.

“Sulaymaniyah is considered the cultural capital of the Iraqi Kurdish region so it should have a strong infrastructure to support that,” Barham Salih, the senior Iraqi Kurdish politician who heads the park project, told NIQASH. “This [amphitheatre] is only going to strengthen that. It will become a landmark in the park, in Sulaymaniyah and in the whole Kurdish region.”

Salih admits that the theatre project is one of his favourite parts of the whole park and he visits the construction site often. “We’re hoping the project is completed as soon as possible,” Salih said, adding that the new amphitheatre would play an important role in a planned festival of international and local arts and culture.

“The amphitheatre will be the first open-air theatre in Iraq that can accommodate this many people [5,000] and it is designed so that it won’t need a sound system,” boasts Rabeen Jamil, the engineering supervisor at the park. “The person speaking on stage will be able to be heard by those in the very back rows.”

 

 

The park itself first opened in May 2016 even though construction started as far back as 2004. Construction was plagued by budgets and planning problems but the park was eventually expanded to almost double the size – it’s now around 240 acres – and should eventually include a zoo, a golf course, various other dedicated areas for sports, a shopping centre and even a Hyatt hotel.

Over 3,000 trees and plants have been added to the surrounds in a valley that was once well known for being barren and lifeless. Planners say it will be the biggest amusement park in the Middle East and around 10,000 people are expected to visit daily during holidays.

Questions about why such a park is being constructed while the region suffers a financial crisis and teachers and other civil servants are not being paid, remain moot. Budgets for the park are old, with money allocated and handed over last year and earlier.

Work on the project actually began when Barham Salih was president of Iraqi Kurdistan. “This was my dream and now it is standing,” Salih says. “We are still working on it, trying to ensure that it achieves all that we want it to.”


source: Niqash

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