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April 22, 2011

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Analysis: Iraqi Kurd demos threaten image Experts say autonomous Kurdistan risks losing its hard-won reputation as haven of safety, freedom within Iraq.  Middle East Online - By Prashant Rao 

Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, rocked by months of protests where five people have died, risks losing its hard-won reputation as a haven of safety and freedom within the country, experts said.

There was still room for talks between protesters and the government, they added, warning any crackdown by Kurdish authorities would inflict immeasurable damage, even straining relations with Washington.

The near-daily demonstrations in the region's second-biggest city of Sulaimaniyah initially decried corruption and nepotism, but have since risen in rancour to call for a complete dissolution of the autonomous government.

"Politics in Kurdistan is a very emotive topic," said Ali al-Saffar, an Iraq analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. "All sides have shown quite a lot of restraint, but if something were to happen it could boil over."

Saffar noted that if protesters in Sulaimaniyah were attacked en masse by security forces, "the reputational damage will be immense."

"Kurdistan has spent millions in Washington lobbying the US government, and if any crackdown were to happen, it would push back relations a great deal," he said.

The three-province region, whose assembly makes decisions independent of Baghdad in most policy areas, is reputed for being markedly safer than the rest of Iraq, where hundreds still die on a monthly basis in insurgent violence.

As a result, several foreign firms have invested in the region: the only international chain hotel in Iraq is in the Kurdish capital of Arbil, and several shopping malls have recently been built or are under construction with foreign financing.

But high levels of unemployment, graft and nepotism in Kurdistan, which has been ruled by two-parties for decades, sparked street protests in Sulaimaniyah from mid-February, fuelled by uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

In three straight days of rallies this week more than 100 protesters were wounded when security forces attempted to disperse demonstrations.

Kurdish security officials and local non-governmental organisations said more than 300 protesters had been detained since Saturday at the protests.

Paris-based watchdog Reporters Without Borders noted in a statement on Thursday that it was "deeply shocked by a spate of arbitrary arrests," while Human Rights Watch in New York called on Kurdish authorities to "end their widening crackdown on peaceful protests."

"The demonstrations started especially with the young generation," said Asos Hardi, a Sulaimaniyah-based Kurdish journalist. "The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were the main spurs of the protest but, very quickly, a wider section of society joined in."

"If you go back and read reports from international organisations about human rights, freedoms, management and corruption in Kurdistan, you can understand why people are angry with their leaders," added Hardi, who helped found two of the region's biggest independent newspapers.

He noted, however, that despite the poisonous views the protesters and government had of each other, there was still hope for dialogue.

Sulaimaniyah, reputed as the intellectual capital of the region, has long been a bastion of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. A faction of the PUK, however, split in 2009 and went into opposition.

In the regional capital of Arbil, by contrast, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of regional president Massud Barzani retains a tight grip.

A poll conducted by the Washington-based International Republican Institute in December offered hints for the causes behind the anger in Sulaimaniyah.

Some 62 percent of respondents in Sulaimaniyah said Kurdish MPs were not listening to their needs, and 35 percent said the economic situation in Kurdistan was either "somewhat bad" or "very bad," both of which were the highest in the region.

"The KDP and the PUK must change," said Mahmud Othman, an independent Kurdish MP in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. "They need to change, definitely, but are they capable, are they serious? That is what remains to be seen."

Regardless of possible change, independent journalist Hardi insisted the two months of protests marked a crucial shift in Kurdistan.

"Everything in our history has been about protecting our existence as a culture, as a nation, as a people," Hardi said. "But now, these protests are about changing and improving our existence."

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