In the early afternoon of 11 December, while Moslems were celebrating the Feast of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha), a bomb attack took place in Kirkuk, in a restaurant that was particularly busy because of the feast. This resulted in 55 depths and over a hundred people injured, 30 of whom very severely.
According to a waiter, Abbas Fadel, a kamikaze set of an explosive belt in the Abdallah Restaurant, to which go by family parties of all the towns communities, Kurdish, Arab and Turcoman and which was particularly full that day because of the Feast. The Iraqi Defence Ministry later confirmed this witness’s account.
Some police officers also reported the presence in this restaurant of members of the Huweija local Council, who might have been one of the terrorist’s targets. Huweija is a Kirkuk province township. “It is possible that the presence of these members of the Huweija Council attracted the attention of armed groups like al-Qaida or Ansar al-Islam”, stated brigadier General Qader to the Press. According to one of the Huweija Council leaders, the dining rooms were full of women and children: “After we’d drunk our tea, an enormous explosion took place. I saw bodies on the ground. As we rushed out of the restaurant, I saw wounded civilians and women”.
Another possible target was a group of chiefs having lunch with representatives of Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, to discuss the latest political developments regarding Kirkuk. This group, however, was in another dining room and none of them was hurt.
Because of the crowd, the restaurant guards were unable to thoroughly search families who had come for lunch.
Last October, a member of the Kurdish security forces died and three police were wounded in an attack attributed to the rebellion. In November 2008a bomb exploded on some wasteland in the town, killing two children and wounding three others. With 55 killed, this latest attack far exceeds the number of casualties caused by the attack that hit a market in Baghdad on 10 November last (28 deaths and dozens of injured) as well as that in the al-Hurriyah quarter (also in Baghdad) on 17 June 2008, which caused 51 deaths and 75 injured. The bloodiest attack of 2008 remains the double suicide bomb attack of 1 February carried out against two of the Iraqi capital’s markets, causing 98 deaths and 208 injured.
Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President, visited the city of Kirkuk the same day. As for the Kurdistan Regional Government, it issued a communiqué on 13 December vigorously condemning the attack, describing it as an affront to humanity, to democracy and to religion.
The Kurdish government pointed out that, though Kirkuk was outside the Kurdistan Region, it was sending medical teams to the scene and calling on all its Ministries to supply aid if needed. The region’s hospitals have been readied to receive hose wounded. The Kurdistan Government also sent its condolences to the families if those killed and injured.
A week later, the police found, in Kirkuk, the decapitated body of Nahla Hussein al-Shaly, 17 years old, a leading member of the Kurdish Communist Party’s Women’s League. According to the police the murderers had shot the young woman and then decapitated her. A spokesman for the Kurdistan Communist Party made the point that Nahla al-Shaly’s feminist activity made her an ideal target for islamists.
According to the Kirkuk police’s security report for 2008, 214 people had lost their lives in bomb attacks, 196 of them men and 18 women, while 722 had been wounded by them, of which 655 were men and 67 women. Moreover, 61 people had been kidnapped and 11 murdered. The police also recorded 16 suicides.
Of those killed in these attacks, there were 170 civilians, 1 civil servant, 17 police, 17 soldiers, 3 members of security forces and 6 members of the al-Sahwa paramilitary forces. Of those wounded, 131 were police, 36were soldiers, 3 were members of security forces and 41 were members of al-Sahwa militia. There were also 506 civilians and 5 civil servants injured.
To sum up, the police record having been called out 20,929 times in the course of 2008 for events linked to terrorist activities in Kirkuk.
On 10 December, the Kurdish security forces arrested 8 men suspected of being members of the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group in Suleimaniah Province. “The Kurdish security forces, in cooperation with other security forces, have succeeded in arresting a group of eight terrorists”, announced General Hassan Nuri, who commands the Suleimaniah security forces. “The members of this group are all Kurds who have links with the ansar al-Islam terrorist group. They have admitted intending to perpetrate bomb attacks. We have confiscated some cards and explosives”.
According to Hassan Nuri, the terrorists planned to use magnetic bombs against political leaders as well as “chemical products”.
The Foreign Affairs Commission of the European Union has warned the Turkish Government following the publication of a report that severely judges the AKP government’s record of modernising and democratising the country. The report particularly highlights the way the political reforms, promised by this party during its re-election in 2007, have been almost completely bogged down
“A warning signal has been sent to the Turkish government for it to continue the reforms that have been slowed down over the last three years”, commented the Dutch Social Democrat MEP who drafted the report, Ria Oomen-Ruijten, saying she was expecting actions from Turkey, not just promises.
The report particularly deplores the fact the initial efforts undertaken to reform the Turkish Constitution (the present one dates from the 1980 military coup d’état) just concentrated on the issue of the Islamic headscarf in the universities. The European Union urges the Turkish Government to draw up a new constitution that would guarantee human rights and fundamental freedoms. It also called for the political parties and civil society as well as ethic and religious minorities to be closely associated with the reform process.
On the very day that the report was published, the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ali Babacan, who was visiting Brussels, far from disapproving the calls for reform, actually supported them saying that his country needed “a fundamental revision of the constitution”. “This is a reality that we have to accept as such. It is impossible for Turkey to continue forever with this Constitution”. In Ali Babacan’s opinion, the absence of reform would aggravate the country’s internal instability. However, another member of the Government, Cemil Çiçek, Deputy Prime Minister, defended it in the Turkish newspaper Zaman, explaining that any change in the constitution had been made “impossible”, citing the case where the Constitutional Court had quashed an amendment passed by Parliament lifting the ban on wearing the Islamic headscarf in universities. “The government would, indeed, like to change all the articles in the Constitution, apart from the four untouchable Articles, but we are the only party ready for this. Wanting is one thing but reality is something else”.
If the quashing of this amendment blocks any other reform, according to Cemil Çiçek, this is not a procedural matter but one of “substance”. In the view of the Deputy Prime Minister, this precedent opens the way for the quashing of any law passed by Parliament and, in any case, limits the legislative actions of the government: “Changing the Constitution has become, at present, as difficult as moving a mountain”.
This decision of the Constitutional Court, dated October 2008, has been strongly criticised in Turkey as an attempt to infringe on Parliament’s prerogatives and as a means of blocking any future constitutional reform.
Moreover, Turkey continues to blow hot and cold on the Kurdish question, torn between government promises of liberalisation and the unbending and nit-picking actions of its judiciary, that is always inclined to condemn the Kurdish opposition as a whole.
Thus the former DEP Member of Parliament, Leyla Zana, who had been sentenced to 15 year imprisonment in 1994 for alleged “membership of an armed group” (the PKK) and released in 2004, has again been sentenced to ten years imprisonment for “praising the PKK” — in fact for having publically said that Abdullah Ocalan was one of the leaders of the Kurdish people. The former Member of Parliament has also been deprived of her vote and forbidden to stand for election, thus eliminating her from the 2009 municipal elections in which she was going to stand for mayor of Diyarbekir.
At the same time, the Turkish government has to decide, in the spring of 2009, whether it will end the solitary confinement of the PKK chief, which is called for by the Council of Europe’s Commission against Torture. The Council had visited the prisoner in May 2008 and, in view of “the deterioration in his state of mind” had demanded that his state of isolation be brought to an end. Hitherto Turkey has always refused this. This time, the justice Minister, Mehmet Ali Sahin has let it be understood, on the NTV channel, that some relaxing of his conditions of detention might be considered. “We have started building new housing for the guards at Imrali and this building should be completed in the spring, in May. We will then decide whether or not to send other detainees. We are thinking of increasing the number of detainees in this prison, but no final decision has yet been taken”. The number of prisoners sent to the island of Imrali, where Abdullah Ocalan is being held, could be as many as five or six.
The Syrian Kurds are protesting against a recently announced law that aims the right to sell or lease land located in border zones. Decree N°49 places severe restrictions on ownership and use of land bordering Israel and Turkey. Since all the Kurdish regions straddle Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq, the inhabitants complain that such measures would hinder the local economy.
Indeed, it is decreed that inhabitants of border regions may no longer sell land without having secured prior agreement from the authorities, namely the Ministries of the Interior, Agriculture and Defence. A similar authorisation would be needed ON renting land for a period of over three years.
According to Radif Mustafa, a lawyer and president of the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights, “The al-Quneitra border is a special case, since it is at present occupied by Israel, but why are the areas along the Turkish border are covered by this law when Syrio-Turkish relations are better than ever?”.
Last month over 200 Kurds demonstrated in Damascus against this new regulation. Their protests were peaceful — which did not prevent a brutal reaction by the authorities. Thus, Hirfin Awsi, who was taking part in the demonstration, says he was beaten with iron bars: “We hadn’t said anything against the government or the President. Our protest was peaceful”.
Loqman Oso is a member of the Azadi Committee, one of seven Kurdish parties that have been protesting publicly against this decree for the last seven months. He states that his party is prepared to continue this kind of demonstration despite the repression: “We have succeeded in rallying a considerable number of Kurdish parties and we will continue to struggle, peacefully and democratically, until this decree is withdrawn”.
However, Khaled al-Jarad, who runs the Al-Wahda Press group, which publishes all the Syrian State’s official statements, insists that the Kurds have “misinterpreted” this law: “I am greatly saddened, regretful and astonished to see how Decree N°49, which regulates property, is interpreted”, he declared to the al-Quds Agency. “It is a decree to regulate property that is not aimed at any specific individual or group but is just concerned with questions of buying an selling. If some people among our Kurdish brothers want to exaggerate they will be the losers as no one will believe the way they have interpreted the decree”.
Suleiman Ismail points to the confusion reigning in the border regions since the decree was published: “All legal proceedings regarding property transactions are frozen, because the courts cannot take any decisions on these matters without instructions from the executive, which has not disclosed anything. We have no idea what will happen in the future regarding housing and property in the region”.
The authorities responsible for carrying out the decree do not seem any better informed, as the Hassake land registration office admits: “We have received legal notice of the decree and we are asked to carry it out immediately, but we have not received any instructions on how to do this. We have simply been told to stop registering any property transactions”.
Hence the economic repercussions of such a situation that have made themselves felt since October, as Hussein Abbas, a civil engineer, explains: “We used to sell a hundred tons of steel a month, but now we barely sell ten. The building firms are not buying any steel or cement since there are no fresh building permits being issued for the moment”.
Mohammad Salih Salo, a businessman at Qamishlo, confirms that the new law, and the uncertainty which has arisen as a result of it, has dissuaded many people from buying or selling land and real estate: “Work in the building industry is at a standstill because many people suffer from a lack of confidence. Before we could buy or sell real estate, pay for it and get a building permit. Now people who have money are not buying anything since property transactions can no longer be officially registered in their name. This creates problems of trust as between buyers and sellers. We want to secure the necessary permits; we want to work in one way or another. However the administration’s offices have received no instructions regarding the new decree so that we are all just waiting”.
Some Kurds, because of the economic freeze, have already been forced to emigrate. Mohammad al-Khatib, a carpenter, has a wife and children to keep. He has had to leave home for Damascus and find a job in a shop there: “I left for Damascus because the firm we were working for had no more work for us. Most of the lads I was working with are from Hassake province and most of them are Kurds. They want to earn a living somehow or other”.
Despite official denials regarding the hidden aims of such measures, the history of the Kurds in Syria since the 60s, especially in the eastern regions, leads them to be suspicious of a regulation that limits their property rights. In 1962, Syria carried out a policy called “the Arab belt” that envisaged expelling the Kurds from the Jezirah, bordering on Turkey, and replacing them with Arab colonies. Nearly 200,000 Kurds were, overnight, deprived of their nationality and declared to be “foreigners living illegally in Syria”. Thus status has been passed on to their children, who are this born “foreign” to their native land. Thus, a secret Arabisation plan, drawn up in 1963 by the Hassake police and entitled “A study of Jezirah Province, on its national, social and political aspects” recommended, amongst other measures, the dispersion of the Syrian Kurds even at the cost of their employment, the setting up of an “Arab belt” inhabited by “pure and nationalist Arabs” who would live in “collective farms”, and in general the suppression of civil rights to all those who did not speak Arabic. Kurdish lands were this seized and redistributed to Arab colonists and, today, the issue of the Kurds who have no official status is one of the most important of the demands of the Kurds in Syria.
As in the universities of all developed countries, Turkish Universities have departments for the study of the language and civilisations of now extinct civilisations (Sumerian, Hittite Assyrian etc.) and also of living languages throughout the world. However, till now none of the Universities has a department of Armenian or Kurdish. Now the DTP party, though one of its members of Parliament, Osman Ozçelik, has proposed the opening of a Kurdish language Department at an Istanbul university — which has not aroused the nationalist uproar that such a suggestion would have caused a few years ago. Questioned on the subject, the President of the Higher Education Council (YOK), Yusuf Ziya Ozcsn, replied to the daily paper Radikal replied: “If the Universities make such a proposal we could discuss the question with our friends and do whatever is needful”.
A department of Armenian language and literature is due to open shortly at Nevshehir University, which already has a Hebrew language department. As for Greek, there has been such a department at Ankara University since 1936 and at Istanbul since 1983. While no constitutional interdiction prevents the opening of a Department of Kurdish language and literature in principle, a similar request made by HADEP in 2000 had never met with any favourable response. However, signs of a certain easing of tension have appeared more recently, such as the official launching of a Kurdish language TV channel in January, and this time the perspective has not met any open opposition from university circles.
Thus the rector of Ankara University, Cemal Taing, stated: “If our Faculty of Language, History and Geography suggests opening a Department, we will gladly work on the subject”. Naturally, the Universities in Turkish Kurdistan have shown the most enthusiasm and the greatest readiness to open a Kurdish Department. Serdar Bedii Omay, Rector of Mardin University says he is ready now to get down to preparing a project for submission to the YOK. The Rector of Hakkari University, Ibrahim Beleni, has said he is in favour, while the Rector of Sirnak, Ali Akmaz, although in principal his Faculty is dedicated to Science, not literature, has also said he is prepared to welcome a course of Kurdish language and literature: “A Department of Kurdish language and literature would open in our Faculty of Science and Letters. We do not have a literature faculty yet but when the laws for opening such a department have been published and agreed by the University, I could submit it to the YOK.
Long considered the most developed city in Iraqi Kurdistan and, in particular the most dynamic one culturally, Suleimaniah is about to be overtaken by Irbil — at least with regard to building and town planning since 2003. In response to remarks about this from local media and observers, the governor of Suleimaniah, Dana Ahmed Majid, has recognised that Irbil, whose urban growth is outstanding in all respects, does indeed seem the more dynamic today. Just after 2003 the two cities had about the same amount of building work under way. However many of Suleimaniah’s projects have not been finished because of delays and unforeseen events, leaving its inhabitants increasingly sceptical and critical of their local administration. These criticisms have been strengthened by Irbil’s spectacular activity and even that of former small towns of the province, such as Duhok. Today the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, with its wide avenues its underpasses and its hectic lifestyle is attracting investors on a large scale. However, questioned by the paper SOMA, Dana Ahmed Majid disputes this supremacy, pointing out other aspects in which, in his view, his city has the advantage over the capital. “We have completed 90 to 95% of the sewage system, whereas Irbil has yet to renew its own. We have preferred finishing the underground works before starting the surface projects”. Majid also points out the differences in landscape: “Suleimaniah is not like Irbil in ground plan. A great deal of their land is flat, which makes the task of identifying potential problems easier — that is not the case with Suleimaniah”. The governor also pointed out other works, such as infrastructures: “The number of building built is not as important as the number of roads that we’ve built for the well being of our citizens. At the New Year, we announced that six underpasses were going to be built in Suleimaniah and the reasons we have not started one of them is that we are first of all seeking alternative passageways and also because we are looking for a company capable of building them on time”.
The governor of Suleimaniah returned to the specific characteristics of the landscape round Suleimaniah: “Where 10 km of roadwork’s cost 5 billion Iraqi dinars in Suleimaniah, it only costs 3 billion in Irbil a their land is flatter than ours, thus needing less digging and less labour”.
The impressive development of the Kurdistan Region since the overthrow of the Baathist regime is one of the striking features of the Kurdish area that, in addition its security, distinguish it from the rest of Iraq. The law on foreign investments, passed in 2006, had the aim of stimulating this expansion with arrival of capital by measures very favourable to private companies. A fact that Governor Majid regrets to some extent: “There is a part of the law that I, personally, consider mistaken. The law was drafted so that all the profits go to the investors and nothing to the government nor the population. The investment projects have all been arranged in such a way that they receive secure land, water, electricity while paying no taxes — sometimes even the equipment is given to them. Their activity takes place without any contract (for example regarding prices), which is a mistake. Not receiving taxes, the government gives them everything without getting anything in return. Moreover they employ foreign staff, so that our population doesn’t get any advantage from it”. Despite these reservations, Dana Majid recognises that the Kurdistan Regional Government could not long survive without the investments from abroad.
On the other hand, the agricultural sector, the most devastated area since the Anfal campaign in which 90% was destroyed by the scorched earth and village destruction policy ordered by Saddam Hussein, is timidly beginning to revive, as is noticeable on the local market place. The Kurdish government has decided to support this activity in the year 2009.
“This year the Suleimaniah Governorate has bought 16 million US dollars worth of barley for the farmers so that they can feed their cattle and 8 million US dollars worth of wheat was given for planting. To help them through the drought we spent 23 billion Iraqi dinars to provide water for the hardest hit regions”.
Although these initiatives to help local production have had a certain impact in improving agricultural production, the Kurdish farmers still have difficulty in the market place because of competition from foreign imports. “Last year at Penwin, there was an abundant tomato crop. The farmers had dug irrigation wells: they needed electric generator sets and lots of fuel. Thus they spent a great deal to produce. However, when they came to the market, they could not drop their prices. Iranian tomatoes were so much cheaper that we had hurriedly to issue a decree to stop import long enough to enable local production to be sold”.
Without government support the Kurdish producers would still be unable to face foreign competition: “The Ministry of Agriculture has set up a Five-year plan costly 10 billion US dollars to complete all the projects under way for the duration of this period. But this exceeds the Regional Government’s resources and it has had to have recourse of a loan”. The Suleimaniah Governorate has asked for a budget of 700 billion Iraqi dinars from Irbil to fully carry out their development plans.
Meanwhile, certain plans are already under way: at Penwin, Kalar, Halabja, and Qala Dize. A vast development project in planned in Chamchamal for 2009 and a company is due to come and explore Hawraman to set up a tourist programme.
For the second time, Ali al-Majid, alias “Chemical Ali”, Saddam Hussein’s cousin and a major actor in the Kurdish genocide campaign, has been sentenced to death for “crimes against humanity and premeditated murder”, this time for the massacre of Shiite Arabs in 1991, during the reprisals against the uprising against the Baathist regime. He had already been sentenced to death last year for having ordered the deaths of 182,000 Kurds during the so-called Anfal operation, that is on 24 July 2008. That sentence was confirmed last September.
Now 67 years of age, Ali Hassan al-Majid was Minister of the Interior under the Baath regime. He was also military governor of Kuwait following its invasion by Iraq in August 1990.
Abdulghani Abdul Ghafur, the Baath leader responsible for the South of Iraq was also sentenced t death on the same grounds. The verdict, however, has to be sent to the Iraqi Supreme Court that could quash the sentence.
Four other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment; 6 to 15 years jail and three were acquitted. They faced the same charges, but the court spared their lives after they had offered their “apologies and regret” — which was not the case of Ali al-Majid and, especially of Abdel Ghafur, who was extremely vindictive and threatening throughout the trial.
The former assistant chief of operations of the Armed Forces, Rashid al-Tikriti, and General Sultan Hashem al-Tai, former Minister of Defence, were respectively sentenced to life imprisonment and fifteen years.
At the same time, an exhibition on the Anfal operation opened in the Kurdish city f Suleimaniah. This is principally intended to teach the young Kurds about the genocide and their past. Amongst the pieces of material evidence is a rope used to hang thousands of Kurds, victims of the former regime. The exhibition’s commissioner, Abdelkarim Ali Haldani, who also manages the Suleimaniah branch of the Autonomous Region’s Martyrs Foundation, cited the figure of 16,000 victims in the province, dying under torture or executed in the Baathist prisons. These facts need to be reminded to the new generation of Kurds, too young to remember the former regime’s repressions or even to have lived through it. “There is a new generation of Kurds who have never experienced oppression and this exhibition will let them know the lives of their elders under an iniquitous regime. Those who do not respect the past can have no future”, declared Jamal Agha, assistant to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to the AFP news agency.
As well as “Chemical Ali’s rope”, a highly symbolic object that sets the tone of the exhibition, official documents of the Baathist State are exhibited, such as death sentences, but also evidence of the daily lives of those in the regime’s prisons: letters by prisoners, object made by detainees such as a chess set.
Osman Said, 40 years of age, and nicknamed “Osman the prisoner”, was detained five years in Abu Ghaib: “This exhibition expresses the sufferings of hundreds of thousands of Kurds, Arabs and Turcomen who sacrificed everything to fight the unjust and oppressive old regime. It reminds e of my days in captivity. From my cell I saw those condemned to death waiting for execution. Amongst them were some of my best friends.
Filmmaker Sahin Omar Kalifa won the prize for the best film at the Louvain International Festival of short films, in Belgium, for his film “Nan” (Bread). The jury’s decision made public on 6 December. In addition to the prestige, the prize is worth 60,000 euros.
“Nan” relates the story of a Kurdish family. Saman and Alan are two brothers, living with their respective mothers, Nazdar and Hemze, who send them out on the streets to steal and beg. One day Saman meets an old man who wants to help the family. But it tries to exploit the situation.
Sahin Omar Kalifa was born in Zakho, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in 1980. He made his first film at the age of seventeen. An immigrant in Belgium since 2001, he entered the Saint Lucas film school, in Brussels, in 2004. He has since made 14 short films. One of them “Ava rush” (Black water) won a prize in 2007 at the first Melbourne Kurdish Film Festival, in Australia.
In this same month, three other Kurdish filmmakers had showings at the 13th Kerala International Film Festival, in India: “Niwe Mange” (Half Moon) by the Iranian Kurdish film director Bahman Ghobadi; “Refugees”, a Turkish, German and Kurdish film by Reis Çelik and “Gitmek” also called “My Marion and my Brando” by Huseyin Karabey.
Furthermore, the critics of the well-known British daily The Times have published a list of the “100 best films” screened in Great Britain during 2008. Ghobadi’s “Niwe Mange” was among those selected. This film has also won the “Golden Shell” award — and been banned in Iran …