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 Arsons spread across Iraq's Kurdistan region

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Arsons spread across Iraq's Kurdistan region ‎ 5.12.2011 

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December 5, 2011

SULAIMANIYAH, Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The attacks against liquor stores and massage parlors that started in Zakho, in Duhok Governorate near the Turkish border, on Friday are spreading across the Kurdistan Region. Another parlor was set on fire late Sunday evening, this time in Sulaimaniyah, near the Iranian border.

The massage center in Sulaimaniyah's Maliki Mahmoud Street was set on fire at around 11 p.m. local time (8 p.m. GMT) by unidentified protesters, who smashed the windows and threw bottles with gasoline into the house. The building burnt down, no one has been reported injured.             

A scene from Zakho's Friday riots. Photo Hawlati
Sulaimaniyah Mayor Zana Hamasalih said the incident was plotted by "saboteurs" who want to destabilize Sulaimaniyah, a large and secular city in the east of the Kurdistan Region.

According to Hamasalih, it was not the first attack on the parlor. "A few days ago, some people threw stones at the center. Investigation into the incident is ongoing and once we have found the people who are responsible, we will bring most severe legal punishment on them."

Three days ago, after Friday prayers, dozens of rioters burnt down more than 30 liquor stores, four massage centers and three hotels in Zakho. Reports say at least 32 people were injured. Rioters were allegedly encouraged by a Muslim preacher, Ismael Osman of Zakho's Rasheed Mosque, who reportedly has ties to the opposition group Kurdistan Islamic Union. Although KIU, which is inspired by the controversial Muslim Brotherhood, denied having any "preachers to be exploited as the instigators of the events", counter-rioters set the KIU headquarters in Zakho on fire.

The arsons continued yesterday in Duhok Governorate, when 20 to 30 young men set fire to four alcohol stores in Deraluk town and broke into a number of other stores to smash liquor bottles at around 8 p.m. local time (5 p.m. GMT). Police rushed to the scene, arresting four people for arson.

On Saturday, government officials still claimed that the arsons in Zakho were local incidents and that it was unlikely they would spread to other cities. Erbil Governor Nawzad Hadi said he had no fear that the events in Zakho would be repeated in Erbil. "The situation in Erbil, from all respects, is stable," he said. Earlier, Erbil police chief Abdul Khaliq Talaat shared the governor's view. "Since we do not feel any fear about such events happening in Erbil province, we have not taken any measures and have not put any force on alert," he said.

Only hours later, these statements were proven wrong, when police chief Talaat announced that police prevented KIU from holding a gathering. Talaat said the measures were "only to maintain security and stability in the city."

Eyewitnesses had already reported that late Friday evening, armed security forces took up position in Erbil’s Christian neighborhood of Ainkawa, where the city's liquor stores, bars and nightclubs are placed. According to one witness, four pickup trucks each with up to ten armed men were rushing into Ainkawa at about 10 pm on Friday evening.

The riots have widened the gap between ruling and opposition parties in the Kurdistan region. The Kurdistan Regional Government, run by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, quickly blamed an imam with ties to the oppositional KIU. Salahaddin Mohammed Bahaddin, head of KIU, claimed that the cleric was "a KDP man".

Observers believe that there could be more about Friday's events than just sectarian tensions between conservative Muslims and alcohol-consuming Christians. Iraq and the Kurdistan Region did not play a role in the Arab Spring, both have not seen protests like in neighboring Syria. However, there have been smaller protests in February, calling for reforms and demanding KDP and PUK loosing their grip on power.

Despite the fact that the Kurdistan Region appeared to be "the better Iraq" -- the autonomous region enjoys foreign investment, economic growth and a stable security situation -- many Kurds demand a greater share of the region's wealth. The events in Zakho might be linked to frustrations over public services and the perceived shortcomings of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG.

It is difficult for media outlets to receive information from Zakho these days, since journalists can not work freely. "In 48 hours, 6 media offices have been torched, 6 journalists have been put in jail and 16 more journalists have been subjected to attacks," Metro Centre, a press freedom organization, said in a statement.

Metro condemns the torching of the media offices and the detention of journalists calling on the authorities to bring those responsible for incidents to justice. All the six media offices set on fire, and cited by the Metro statement, belonged to the KIU.

Also in Sulaimaniyah journalists complained that they were denied access to the site. Kamal Nouri, a correspondent for the Iran-based Kurdish Sahar TV said, "We were blocked by the security forces, attacked and then our camera and equipment were confiscated."

By Karzan Karim and Dilshad Saifaddin.

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