Last Updated: Sat Feb 19, 2011 17:40 pm (KSA) 14:40 pm (GMT)

Students demand Iraq Kurd apology for protest deaths

Iraqi riot police officers carry the body of a protester in front of the headquarters of Kurdish President
Iraqi riot police officers carry the body of a protester in front of the headquarters of Kurdish President

Around 2,000 university students were demonstrating Saturday in north Iraq, demanding an apology from regional president Massud Barzani after protests earlier in the week left two dead.

The rally in Sulaimaniyah, along with another protest in the same city and others in Baghdad, were the latest in a string of nationwide demonstrations that have drawn thousands out to denounce high level corruption, unemployment and poor basic services.

"The authorities in the region do not understand what democracy means," said Frishta Karim, a 21-year-old student of Sulaimaniyah University. "We firmly reject the use of weapons against demonstrators."

Police at the rally refused to allow the protesters to exit the university campus, according to an AFP journalist at the scene.

One banner in Saturday's demonstration called on Barzani, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is the dominant political force in the region, "to apologize to the people of Sulaimaniyah for his guards' shootings."

On Thursday, two young men were killed and 54 others were wounded when KDP guards fired into the air in an attempt to stop protesters from reaching KDP's headquarters in Sulaimaniyah, the autonomous Kurdish region's second city.

Around 1,000 people were also at Sulaimaniyah's main square on Saturday demanding the release of individuals arrested in connection with Thursday's rally, and the prosecution of the head of the city's KDP office who, the protesters claimed, gave the order for security to open fire.

Barazani called for investigation

Barzani has called for a full investigation into the incident.

Immediately after Thursday's protests, looters attacked the offices of opposition movement Goran in Arbil and Dohuk provinces, which along with Sulaimaniyah make up the Kurdish region.

Goran denied it was part of the Thursday demonstration, and party officials have claimed that the looters were KDP loyalists.

An incident in the national parliament on Saturday highlighted the differences between the two sides.

Goran's parliamentary leader Shoresh Hadji claimed in the Council of Representatives that KDP guards had fired on peaceful demonstrators, but he was interrupted by KDP representative Ashwaq al-Jaff, who shouted back: "That's not true! It was the demonstrators who attacked the KDP and not the opposite!"

Meanwhile, in west Baghdad, several hundred orphans and widows demonstrated to call for better compensation for the families of victims of violence, levels of which remain high by international standards despite having fallen from a peak in 2006 and 2007.

According to the United Nations, Baghdad alone is home to around 336,000 orphans and 871,000 female-headed households, the majority as a result of husbands having been killed.

Top MP resigns

 Everything is wrong with the political process, both in the government and in parliament: there have been for many years no solutions to the country's most pressing problems, no strategy, no vision 
Jaafar al-Sadr, MP

A popular MP and member of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's political bloc who has resigned told AFP on Saturday that he stepped down in protest at pervasive patronage and cronyism in Iraqi politics.

Jaafar al-Sadr's resignation on Thursday came amid a wave of protests across Iraq against corruption, poor basic services and high unemployment that has left three dead and more than 100 wounded.

"Of course parliament plays a vital role in the life of the nation," he said in response to e-mailed questions. "But, in Iraq, this institution has found itself hamstrung by quotas and cronyism."

Sadr, the only son of the founder of Maliki's Islamic Dawa party, added: "This cronyism is corrupting official political life, while average people are increasingly left on their own to deal with their problems."

"I do not wish to overwhelm those who have taken on the heavy responsibility of leading the country, but we must admit that disillusionment and a deep malaise has seized the population," said the 41-year-old.

Country-wide protests this week, from the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah to the southern port city of Basra, have called for the government to combat corruption, and rebuild Iraq's war-battered economy and crumbling infrastructure.

"Everything is wrong with the political process, both in the government and in parliament: there have been for many years no solutions to the country's most pressing problems, no strategy, no vision," said Sadr.

"People are still waiting for even the smallest improvement."

He continued: "The legacy of the former regime, the occupation and the mistakes that came with it, the increasingly aggressive intervention by countries in the region, and terrorism which strikes continuously have all contributed to this impasse."

"But we must have the courage and the honesty to admit that there has also been a major failure of policy since 2003."

Won highest votes

 The process of democracy is not irreversible -- never forget that 
Jaafar al-Sadr

Sadr, who won the second highest number of votes in Baghdad province after Maliki in the premier's State of Law coalition in a March legislative poll, said he had no "political objectives" for his post-parliamentary career.

His father, Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Sadr, founded the Islamic Dawa party in 1957 but was killed in 1980 by president Saddam Hussein, who was overthrown in the 2003 US-led invasion.

Jaafar al-Sadr, a cousin and brother-in-law of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, studied religion in Baghdad, the holy Shiite city of Najaf and in Qom, Iran, before earning a degree in sociology and anthropology in Lebanon.

Sadr said that given the fragility of Iraq's democracy, all sides must scrupulously respect the constitution and the law.

"The Iraqi context is not unique: every time a society finds itself divided along ethnic, religious, confessional and tribal lines, it oscillates between two models," Sadr said.

These were "authoritarianism to maintain social cohesion, which is in the process of falling apart in front of our eyes across the Arab world, and a political system based on a contract that establishes the framework and rules of politics."

He said Iraq had escaped chaos but failed to attach itself firmly to a constitutional framework based on laws. "The process of democracy is not irreversible -- never forget that," Sadr cautioned.

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