Just when an aurora of calm and stability was returning to Kurdistan following the several weeks of riots that were instigated earlier this year in Sulaimanyia, turmoil, tension and anger returned to the scene once again in Kurdistan.
The riots over the past week, which started when a large number of liquor stores, massage parlors and other venues deemed un-religious, were set on fire after Friday prayers, quickly spread across the Duhok region.
The much unfortunate attacks on such shops and massage parlors, seemingly a direct attack on the Kurdish Christian and Yezidi community, were followed by tit-for-tit reprisal attacks by other group of rioters where a number of buildings of Kurdistan Islamist Union (KIU) and some media offices were set on fire.
In a repeat of heightened tensions that ensued in February of this year in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) stronghold in the east of the Kurdistan Region with Gorran at the center of the political and social exchanges, this time it was the west of the Region and the stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the KIU at the heart of the controversies.
Either way, such events prove the sensitivity of the Kurdistan Region and how polarised Kurdistan continues to be along mainly political but also sectarian lines.
Tensions always escalate rapidly with a culture of a blame game and media war taking precedence. Accusatory fingers by either side or attacks on their credibility via the media simply add great fuel to the fire in a region renowned for passion and strong emotions when it comes to political affiliations and nationalism.
In truth, such events much like those in February can never be judged merely on the surface of affairs. In practice, there is a series of underhand reasoning”s, probabilities and intentions that have been used to spark a downward spiral of relations.
Was it the KIU that encouraged violence in the first place on dozens of shops and other outlets in Zakho, was it the KDP that was responsible for the burning of KIU buildings, was it the KDP that was responsible for any crackdown of rioters? Was it actually a member of KIU that intended to greatly harm the images of both KIU itself and the KDP for certain gain? Or was it actually someone from the KDP who intended to harm the image of both sides?
Could such attacks have been perpetrated by Islamist groups in the greater Iraq with influence on elements in the region?
It was widely alleged that emotions on Friday were heightened by fiery sermons in Zakho with the KRG in particular blaming a particular Imam with alleged ties to KIU.
As always the questions pondered rage unanswered with the obsession of finding a side to blame taking significance. Rather than singling out the minority elements of each party in such episodes, the blame is quickly shifted to the whole party and the whole government.
What is clear is that while the attacks on so-called western icons in Zakho may seem to have a religious grounding, in reality the fundamental undertones are political.
These liqueur stores or the like did not appear overnight in Zakho or in the Kurdistan Region. They have been there for years that have encompassed various events of political turmoil, so why now?
The region is renowned for its religious and ethnic tolerance and it”s embracing of pluralism and indeed the KIU and other Islamist-rooted parties would be hard-pressed not to agree that that is one element of the Kurdish landscape that has received a lot of positive light from Western powers, in a greater region hardly renowned for its tolerance or pluralism.
There is no smoke without fire and all signs to point a pre-mediated set of events. It”s hard to believe that events in Zakho and subsequent incidents were simply spontaneous in nature.
Such is the level of passion that political parties and protesters almost expect harsh reprisal actions following initial violent attacks. It is almost a case of goading of sentiments, with key elements taking full advantage of the emotive and political polarisation that appears at such turns.
Tensions between the KIU and KDP is not new, you only need to go back to 2005 when small group of supporters attacked their buildings, with the KDP later compensating families of victims and renovating KIU buildings. With the Duhok province a longtime stronghold of the KDP, with the KDP weeks away from assuming the premiership a further time and with the much anticipated provincial elections around the corner, these stirring of tensions, blame games and media war allows early points to be scored.
Although the relations between the ruling parties and opposition groups have calmed significantly, there has been a lack of real reconciliation, dialogue and concord. Aside from KIU statements this week against the KDP, all opposition parties still have somewhat of a bitter taste in their mouths.
In this light, it was hardly surprising when it was announced this week that opposition groups had refused to take part in proposed multi-party talks, with Gorran stating their solidarity with the KIU “for the oppression they were subjected to”.
Kurdistan Region President, Massaud Barzani, promised a full investigation of the incidents and vowed to hold any perpetrator to account regardless of political affiliation.
Indeed, this is not about the KIU, KDP or any other political party. This is about preserving the interests of Kurdistan and preserving the interests of the people who ultimately vote for these parties. Injustice has the same connotations no matter the background and any wrong doing, criminal attacks or violent reprisals must be fully accounted for no matter who the guilty party turns out to be.
The most unfortunate casualty of this setback is the media. The media becomes a default target where emotions are channeled. Journalists, media outlets and freedom of speech must be protected as a symbol of our society. However, by the same token this does give the media, especially those owned by the political parties, the right to enflame tensions, spread false accusations or mislead viewers.
KDP has issues statements expecting the KIU to end the media war it believe was instigated again the KDP. The media war in Kurdistan is perhaps the greatest poison of such riots. The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reports Without Borders quickly condemned all political factions for the targeting of the media.
Other opposition parties should be a part of reconciliation in such circumstances, after all they are still an accountable part of the political interests of Kurdistan. However, all too often such events and deepening of wounds is manipulated to serve political interests, not the interests of the Region.
These events also clearly demonstrate that real soothing of political and social tension never happened after the February violence. The KRG must continue their investigation of the events earlier this year, rapidly conduct investigation via a formal committee on the latest riots and proceed with the positive reform that was announced.
As Kurdistan attracts more and more foreign interest, more foreign consuls are opened and further portals to the outside world are created, it conversely draws attention more quickly.
Kurdistan needs unity more than ever, with key disputes in Baghdad as tense as ever, with Kurdistan surrounded by hostile partners and with the stability of the Region at stake. Within the region itself, finger pointing and media wars may tarnish individual parties, to the outside world all of Kurdistan becomes tarnished.
The Yezidi and Christian communities have been a heralded icon of Kurdish society for thousands of years. For hundreds of years they have lived with fellow Muslims and under Islamist empires. Are they really the source of problem in Kurdistan all of a sudden? The Yezidi and Christian community calls for protection must be heeded and the notion of tolerance in Kurdistan must be reinforced.
Christian and various other sects in the south of Iraq have flocked to the region for safety where they have been embraced as brothers. This is a proud achievement for Kurdistan that has not gone unnoticed even in the Vatican.
The onus is on both the KIU, KDP and KRG to put this issue aside, investigate fully and protects the interests and unity of Kurdistan at all costs.