In Iraqi Kurdistan, some call for an Arab Spring
SULAYMANI, Iraq, Feb. 22 (UPI) -- During Friday prayers, the mosques in Zakho, a dusty Kurdish town in northern Iraq near the Turkish border, are usually brimming. After the service, most men return home for lunch or meet friends in a coffee shop. But after prayers one day in December, the town erupted. An angry mob burned liquor stores, massage parlors and hotels serving alcohol.
A local imam, Mullah Ismael Osman, was accused of triggering the attacks. Video from NRT TV, an independent news station, showed him addressing worshipers after the sermon. Osman asks for the massage parlors to be closed. The crowd replies, “God is the greatest.”
That night, in an apparent reprisal, offices of the conservative Kurdistan Islamic Union in Zakho and neighboring Duhok were set ablaze. The party is Islamist and has close ties to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Soon, suspicion fell on supporters of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, the dominant party in the towns.
The KDP, along with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan control most levers of political power in the regional government of Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. After gains made by Islamist parties elsewhere in the Middle East, the events in Zakho were an early indication of a growing challenge to the secular parties that have dominated Kurdish politics for 20 years.
“The reality is that KDP sees these places as its own dominions,” says Muthana Amin, a member of the KIU leadership. “It does not accept political differences in these territories.”
Amin says the KIU has deep roots in the region.
“Many political parties tried to open offices in these places, brought members from other cities, but failed. But the KIU has a real existence in these places with many supporters among local civilians,” he said. “The KDP does not accept this.”
It is not the first time that the KIU offices have been attacked in Duhok. In November 2005, after officials with the party declared the party on a separate list for the Iraqi Council Representative election, shots were fired at its offices. In the aftermath, four party members were killed, including the party’s politburo member.
The KDP has denied involvement in the incidents. Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP and the president of Kurdistan, formed a committee to investigate the incident. The committee, in an announcement late last year, held KIU local members responsible for provoking the mobs that burned the massage parlors and liquor stores. At the same time, the committee said the KDP was "careless" for not controlling its supporters, which the report accepted had been responsible for setting fire to the KIU offices.
“It was not the policy of the KDP,” said Ari Harsin, a member of a KDP branch executive, referring to the burning of the Islamist party offices. “It was the action of individuals, not organized policy of KDP to attack KIU offices.”
As the KDP sidestepped accusations of direct involvement in the attacks, a more significant legacy has emerged from the incidents of Zakho. They have unveiled the power of the mullahs and their potential hold over the Muslim population in this devout region.
In the Kurdish regional government, mullahs are institutionalized in the framework of the mosques. They have their own union and ministry, to which they are officially bound. The content of their speeches is meant to be approved by the ministry. However, on occasion, the mullahs veer from the agreed script and touch on subjects that provoke the worshipers.
Many mullahs are involved in politics in the Kurdish region. Some are even members of Parliament for both Islamist and secular factions.
Hassan Shamerani, an imam and a politburo member of the KIU, said it is not a problem for a mullah to be involved in politics.
“On the religious matter, the mullahs are the successors of the Prophet Muhammad. What they say is derived from the Koran and Hadith,” he said. “But it is not right if a mullah wanted his opinion to be taken literally in political matters because in politics there are different points of views. They can be right or wrong.”
The presence of the mullahs alongside opposition parties in anti-government protests last year illustrate the support they have among Kurdish Muslims. In February 2011, during protests in Sulaymani, a metropolis in Kurdistan's southern region, mullahs became the spokesmen of angry Kurdish civilians who complained of corruption and the absence of meaningful democracy.
After repeated victories of Islamists in Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, and lately Kuwait, the two ruling parties in Kurdistan are worried. In an article written for Chawder magazine, Mala Bakhtiar, from the political bureau of the PUK, warned the established parties about the rise of Islamists in Kuwait and fears the same scenario.
The Islamist parties predict that an Arab Spring will occur in Kurdistan if the current parties in power do not make radical reforms.
“If these changes happen, I don’t think a spring is needed,” Shamerani said. “But if not, the public will not endure this situation and all the odds are possible.”
But Harsin said it's wrong to compare Kurdistan to other Middle Eastern countries.
“First of all in the Arab world, they had a very, very damn long winter that is why they needed a spring” he said. “We are in spring.”