The “day of anger” organised throughout Iraq on 25 February with a mixed backing depending on the regions, had the unexpected result of inflaming the debate about Kirkuk and its status, a source of conflict between Kurds and Iraqis. The governor of Kirkuk, in deed, banned an Arab demonstration in the city and imposed a curfew, while troops and Peshmergas surrounded Kirkuk.
The pro-Arab parties violently criticised this decision, arguing that his reasons were only because of just one of the demonstrators’ demands, namely the withdrawal of the Peshmergas from the Province.
However the Kurdish Minister for the Peshmergas, Jafar Sheikh Mustafa, retorted that his troops’ presence was necessary because of the danger that the behaviour of some extremist Iraqi Arabs towards the Kurds in Kirkuk. Thus, since the latter were refusing to take part in these demonstrations, they seemed to fear an attack by the demonstrators in their quarters and on Kurdish political party offices.
This fear was confirmed, according to Jafar Mustafa, by a hostile anti-Kurdish statement by some Arab movements: “The Baathists intended to attack the institutions run by the Kurds and by the Turcomen (…) when the police alone would be have to ensure security in Kirkuk were the Peshmergas to withdraw”. Jafar Mustafa added that the Arab agitators he incriminated did not represent the views of the “real” Arabs of Kirkuk.
General Aziz Waisi, commander of the Zerevani (Kurdish Special forces) also confirmed that the aim of the Kurdish troops was to protect their fellow countrymen from attacks by Arab extremists. “We have come to Kirkuk at the Governor’s request. We will not withdraw our forces until he asks us to”.
Rizgar Ali, a Kurdish member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, for his part, recalled that the Kurds had not been deployed round the city without US agreement. “This was due to an agreement reached between the Minister for the Peshmergas and the American forces”.
Moreover, the Peshmergas were stationed in other zones with a large Kurdish population not yet incorporated in the Kurdistan Region, in some districts of Diyala Province. Thus the district of Jalawla had lost 600 Kurdish families, obliged to flee to the Kurdistan Region after being threatened by Arab militia — over 400 Kurdish civilians had been assassinated by insurgent groups over the last three years. Since then, Pehmergas from Suleimaniah have been stationed there permanently, as Mahmud Samgawi, their commander explained: “Under cover of demonstrations, some terrorists wanted to attack the Kurds and massacre them. The situation is now stable and the Peshmergas are remaining in Jalawla”.
In a joint press conference, Kurdish and Turcoman members of Parliament for the Province described the situation as “very sensitive” and insisted on the urgent need for provincial elections.
Confirming the Kurds’ fears for their security, some government buildings and police stations were attacked and set on fire on 25 February in two of the Province’s towns, Hawja and Riyadh, and three police killed. The controversy very soon spread beyond the Iraqi borders when the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, commenting on the visit to the Kurdistan Region of a Turkish Foreign Ministry delegation led by Fereydun Sinirlioglu, Assistant Foreign Minister, reported that the object of the visit was not only to meet President Barzani but to raise the Kirkuk issue and the stationing of Kurdish forces there. Thus the delegation is alleged to have expressed its “concern” for the city’s Turcoman community and asked the President to withdraw his troops.
However, Jabbar Yawar, the Pershmerga Ministry’s spokesman, replied that this was a purely internal Iraqi business and that, to the best of his knowledge, the Turkish government had never made any such request.
Far form calming down, the controversy were still further inflamed when the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, stated on 7 March that Kirkuk was “Kurdistan’s Jerusalem” — a declaration of faith that people were more used to hearing from Masud Barzani, even though Talabani was not expressing himself as President of the Republic, but as leader of his party, the PUK, in its stronghold of Suleimaniah at a commemoration of the 1919 Kurdish uprising.
While the Arab and Turcoman members of Parliament were indignant, others saw there a possible attempt to calm down the issue or get round the controversy the Kurdish government is facing in this city. However, politicians hostile to this incorporation, such as Wihda al-Diemeili, a Member of Parliament for the Sunni Arab block Al-Iraqiyya, protested at the fact that Jalal Talabani’s position “did not represent any group or party but was President of Iraq”. He also added that the Kurds’ “inclination” to annex Kirkuk was “enormous” and that they had a “strategic vision” behind this.
An Arab member of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, Mohammed Khalil al-Juburi, also criticised this stand, saying that, as President of Iraq, he should remain impartial.
The Kurds, on the other hand, retorted that, at this PUK rally, Jalal Talabani was only speaking as leader of his own party.
This did not prevent some Iraqi M.P.s of the Al-Iraqiyya group from launching a petition demanding that Jalal Talabani be “summoned” to Parliament. This demand was rejected by the National Coalition, the group led by Prime Minster Nuri al-Maliki, who considered that it would harm the developing political stability, that Kirkuk was an Iraqi province and that Jalal Talabani’s remarks had not changed anything.
Meanwhile, pressure is continuing, both from Americans and Iraqis, for the withdrawal of Kurdish Peshmergas from Kirkuk — pressures that come up against persistent Kurdish refusal. The web site of the Kurdish press, AKnews even spoke, on 15 March, of a two-week ultimatum from the Americans for such a withdrawal. This news was rapidly denied by a spokesman of the Kurdish Parliamentary coalition in Baghdad, Muayyid al-Tayyib.
At the same time, as the Governor of Kirkuk Province resigned this month, a new Governor and a new head of the Provincial Council were elected — much to the displeasure of some local Arab political public figures, who had called for these elections to be boycotted. As a result, a Kurdish M.P., Dr, Najmaldin Karim, was elected Governor and a Turcoman, Hassan Toran, became head of the Kirkuk Provincial Council. This Kurdo-Turcoman alliance was not to the taste of the Arab parties, who denounced this “marginalisation”.
Finally, despite earlier denials of “American pressure”, the Peshmerga forces withdrew from some positions to the South-East of Kirkuk to be replaced by US troops 0n 28 March. Kurdish troops remain to the North and Northeast. The Peshmerga Minister officially announced that an agreement had been reached with the Iraqi and American forces for applying new security measures.
On 28 and 29 March, the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iraq, accompanied by several Ministers and a delegation of businessmen “to discuss major political and economic relations with this neighbouring country and to strengthen economic cooperation and regional issues”, according to a Turkish diplomatic source. He added that the question of the struggle against the PKK was also tackled with the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Muri al-Malilki.
However, the highlight of this visit was its Irbil stage, since it was the first time that a Turkish head of government had visited the Kurdish capital.
The PKK was not the only subject of disagreement between Turkey and the Kurdish Region. The Kirkuk question and the relations between Kurds and Turkmen were also tackled, as had previously been reported by Saadreddin Arkij, leader of the Turkmen Front, a party backed by Ankara. However, a sign of the warming of the political climate between Kurds and Turks, the head of the Turkmen Front pointed out that the Turkish government had insisted that they “settle their differences with the Kurds”: “One of the objectives of this visit is to try and reduce the differences between Turkmen and Kurds, but we do not know what will be decided”.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan took advantage of this visit to officially open, with Masud Barzani, the recently enlarged Irbil Airport, which can now handle 150 flights a day. In his inaugural speech, the President of the Kurdistan Region described the new international Airport as “a first step in the building of a solid infrastructure throughout Iraq and particularly in Kurdistan. It is the key to many projects, on much bigger scale, for the development of Kurdistan and of Iraq”.
Masud Barzani then welcomed the presence there of the Turkish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister: “We consider this as a very historic moment. We think that this visit will build a very solid bridge in the bilateral relations between Iraq and Turkey — and especially between Turkey and the Kurdistan Region”
Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed the “historic and cultural links with Iraq” and with “this beautiful region” (without specifically naming Kurdistan). He announced that Turkish Airlines flights to Irbil would begin on 14 April next. Hitherto it was a private company, Atlas Jet, that carried out, from Istanbul, 4 weekly flights to Irbil and Suleimaniah. Turkish Airlines will set up 3 weekly flights to Irbil.
As well as the Prime Minister, the presence of Mehmet Simsek, the Turkish Finance Minister, enabled the delegation to be placed on a footing of economic cooperation — but also linguistic since Mehmet Simsek, a native of Batman, was able to make a speech in Kurdish, speaking of the “millennial brotherhood” of Kurds and Turks. However, at a time when Kurdish elected representatives can still be taken to court for making a speech in Kurdish before their electorate, many saw this more as an attempt to appease or win the favours of the Kurdish electorate for the coming elections.
The procession of officials then went to the Turkish consulate, which although it has been open for some time, they proceeded to “inaugurate” that day to mark the occasion. This time, in his speech, the Turkish Prime Minister stressed the economic links between the two capitals and the extent of Turkish investments in Kurdistan.
“Last year Turkey had a turnover of 7 billion dollars with Iraq, more than half of which was with the Northern provinces. There are, at present 20,000 Turks who have secured work permits from the Irbil government and over 35,000 if ewe add those at Duhok and Suleimaniah”
A private meeting then took place between President Barzani and the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan covering bilateral relations, economic relations and cooperation in the areas of fuel and power.
On 8 March, twelve Syrian organisations for the defence of human rights, Arab as well as Kurdish, called for the lifting of the State of Emergency in force since 8 March 1963 following the assumption of power by the Baath Party. Among the signatories were the Syrian Human Rights Research Institute, the Syrian League for Human Rights, the National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria, the Damascus Centre for Theoretical Studies and Civil Rights, the Kurdish Committee for Human Rights in Syria and the Kurdish Organisation for Human Rights in Syria.
“<The State of Emergency infringes Human Rights and public freedom in Syria, where they are subjected to frequent violations. We call for the lifting of the State of Emergency and for the release of all political detainees”.
The same NGOs also demanded the “promulgation of a law on political parties that would allow the citizens to exercise their right to take part in the management of the country’s affairs, the abrogation of all the laws that prevent Human Rights organisations from working publicly and freely and the associations of civil society from fulfilling their role effectively”. With respect to the Kurds, “urgently to take all the measures needed to cancel all forms of discrimination towards Kurdish citizens” who represent 9% of the Syrian population. The Kurds must be able “to enjoy the use of their culture and language in accordance with civic, political, cultural social and economic rights”.
Moreover, the “Arab Spring” that has succeeded in overthrowing the ruling powers in Tunisia and Egypt has reached Yemen and Libya, is also beginning to stir things up Syria, with demonstrations against the Baath Party presidency, in Damascus, Deraa, and in the South. So far, however, the Kurds have not joined up with the demonstrators, since, so far, there have been few co-ordinated actions by the Arab and Kurdish oppositions. This is due to the distrust aroused by possible “Kurdish separatism”. For over a decade the Kurds, who are the most persecuted group in Syria, have conducted their own struggle against the discrimination from which they suffer without having enjoyed much support from the other Syrians. This was particularly the case since 2004 during attacks by Arab militia against Kurdish football supporters at Qamishlo. However, if the movement broadens, many observers expect that the Kurds will take advantage of it to reaffirm their demands.
Meanwhile, Beshar al-Assad, faced with the protest movement in the South of the country, has resumed his father’s policy of greater flexibility towards religious and ethnic minorities to as the better to control the Syrian Sunni majority. Thus, for the first time in many years, the Newroz celebrations took place without any violence or repression from the Syrian authorities, the police having clearly received instructions to show tolerance. A presidential adviser, Ms. Buthaina Shaaban, even publicly wished a “Good Newroz” (Newroz Mubarak) to the country’s Kurds, thus imitating the attempts by the Turkish government in the late 90s to take over the Kurdish New Year. However she did not go as far as to decree, as was done in Turkey, that Newroz was an “Arab” tradition. Buthaina Nahas simply praised the “magnificent co-existence” between the different components of the Syrian people
However, this does not resolve the “Kurdish question” in Syria, especially that of the Kurds who were stripped of their nationality and more generally, that of their cultural and linguistic rights.
On 28 March, 200 political prisoners were released, 14 of whom were Kurds, held in the ill famed Saydnaya Army Prison. According to the Syrian Human Rights associations, the bulk of these prisoners had already served three-quarters of their sentence.
In the night of 14 March, the Turkish singer, of Arabo-Kurdish descent and born in Urfa, Ibrahim Tatlises, was the victim of an attempted assassination in Istanbul, as he was leaving a television studio, shortly after midnight.
He was accompanied by his press attaché, Buket Cakici, and was just about to get into his car when he was hit by a bulletin the head, fired from a long-range weapon. The murderers, no doubt in a vehicle, fled without being identified.
Caglar Cuhadaroglu, the surgeon who carried out an emergency operation on the singer, indicated that Ibrahim Tatlises had received “a bullet in the head that entered from the rear and exited from the forehead. His life is still in danger but his condition has improved since he arrived at the hospital”.
They were able to stop the internal haemorrhage that followed the bullet’s impact but it is probable that the victim, at present kept in an artificial coma, will retain some after-effects, particularly some paralysis of the left side.
Ibrahim Tatlises is a very popular singer in Turkey, in the “Arabesk”, that is “popular and oriental” style. However, he is also a businessman and the head of an empire, with his own production company, a television channel, and a chain of restaurants. A bus company, a brand of clothes and a building company active in Iraqi Kurdistan as well as a lottery that he was planning to operate in Iraqi Kurdistan as well. In 1990 and 1998 he had already been subjected to attacks by gunfire, but had only been lightly wounded. Each time the press had linked these attempts at murder to the mafia. However the mafia-type settling of accounts could also be mixed with shady political reasons, since Ibrahim Tatlises had been a candidate at the last general elections for the Gemç Partisi, a party belonging to Cem Uzan, a businessman who is being sued for financial offenses and who is trying to stand in the coming 12 June elections in the hope of securing parliamentary immunity.
The AKP party was hoping to use him as a candidate, because of his great popularity in Urfa, to the extent that the AKP mayor of his birthplace organised an all-night vigil of prayers for his recovery. Prime minister Erdogan even visited him at his bedside when the singer, emerging from his coma, seemed almost to have recovered.
The Kurdish film director, Hiner Saleem’s latest film “If you die I’ll kill you” was released on 30 March. As in “The roof-tops of Paris”, the entire action takes place in the French capital.
The hero, Phillipe, played by Jonathan Zaccai, has just come out of prison. He gets friendly with Avdal, a Kurd, who is looking for an Iraqi criminal. Avdal invites his fiancé, Siba, to France where he hopes to settle permanently, but dies suddenly. Meanwhile Siba, (Golshifteh Farahani) arrives in Paris not knowing that her fiancé is dead and is welcomed by six Kurdish brothers and meets Phillipe, who quickly falls for the young girl. Then Avdal’s father arrives in France …
“After “The Roof-tops of Paris” I wanted to return to a kind of film that I am fond of: a comedy that is both absurd and burlesque”, explained Hiner Saleem. “What excites me is to write an unstructured story in which one never knows what is going to happen or where the characters gradually reveal themselves. It’s like a Russian doll … A scenario in which each of the characters passes the action on to one another. The film begins with a friendship between two men and ends by a young woman deciding on her own destiny”.
The film was unanimously praised by the critics, both in the printed press and on the Web sites that specialise in the cinema. In Evenement, they note that “the film director, Hiner Saleem, seems to pack into his film all the things that he likes in life: the Kurdish cause, Paris, beautiful actresses, alcoholic drinks, changes in the weather and a mixture of tones. The tone was set by his first film: “Long live the bride … and the freedom of Kurdistan!” All his films are fables, with a tense plot and a generous moral. His sense of absurd humour is often marvellous, even when (or especially when) he is talking about serious things like religious intolerance, cultural prejudices or impossible loves”.
In Express, Thierry Cheze sees the film as “a burlesque tale sublimated by the enchanting acting of Golshifteh Farahani”. Jean-Luc Douin, in Le Monde sees the film as “devoted to paying tribute to a lower class Paris and to his favourite actors and actresses (Maurice Benichou, Mylene Demongeot, Jane Birkin and his “Jane B” quietly suggested)” and by “selecting the best: funny dialogues at the beginning, a dialogue of the deaf with a municipal employee responsible for funerals, the recurrent presence of unbreakable hard boiled eggs, a way of depicting the Kurdish diaspora like a gang of Daltons …” Pierre Murat, of Telerama points out the director’s “skill” at “worming his way between drama and fantasy” even though he considers his best film was “Lemon Vodka”.
The Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani, who plays the part of Siba, has been living in exile since 2008 since her part in Ridley Scott’s film “Pack of Lies” had displeased the Iranian authorities. She managed to leave her country just before being forbidden to leave the country. Hiner Saleem tells the reasons for his choice to embody Siba: “I met Golshifteh nearly a year before the shooting. I had already seen here in some films and I felt she had great potentials. I relationship of mutual confidence was soon established. She really surprised me during the shooting. She is an extremely talented actress and very generous. She brought to the character exactly what I wanted— a mixture of tradition and modernity”.
Indeed, for the director, Siba, the Kurdish fiancé, is far from being a fearful and passive feminine character: “She represents, to me, the new generation of women of these regions who are trying to break the taboos, to rebel without making a revolution She represents a feminist tend that is slow but decided, that wants to free itself. Siba is a modern and free young girl who does not let herself be intimidated. She has a strong character”.
Jonathan Zaccai, who plays the part of Phillipe, has already acted with Ridley Scott in his film Robin Hood, where he played the part of Phillipe August, the King of France.
Regarding Cheto, the father-in-law, a traditional Kurd who is still angry that his son has been imprisoned in France. Hiner Saleem sees him as “the last generation of Kurds still attached to tradition. He is an ambivalent character. For him, men are the guardians of women. Cheto knows, deep in his heart, that Siba is free. He might even accept it, but before the community he reacts differently to save what he calls his honour”.
Cheto is played by a Turkish actor whose mother was Kurdish, Menderes Samancilar: “This was a very tough experience for him. He had to play the part of a father and, above all, to speak in Kurdish, his mother’s language, that he didn’t know and that is forbidden in his country. He had to learn Kurdish phonetically and my assistant had to translate my instructions from Kurdish to Turkish for him. After all these years, this magnificent actor rediscovered his Kurdish culture with great feeling”