Day 60 of Demonstration in Suleimaniyah Iraq
by Michele Naar-Obed
Sunday, 17 April 2011 marked the sixtieth day of demonstrations calling for democratic change in Suleimaniya Iraq. The demonstration proceeded in its normal manner throughout the early afternoon. The crowd began to gather around 2:00 p.m. Speakers took their place on the stage. At 3:00 p.m., the Suleimaniya University students began their march from the University to Azadi (Freedom) Square. They were stopped by a large group of soldiers, some armed with guns, others with riot gear. A group of young men left the square to escort the students in, and the students eventually made their way past the soldiers and marched into the square waving their Kurdish flags and chanting "Zanko” (university). The crowd already assembled in the square greeted them with cheers.
CPT Iraq team members left the square shortly after the students arrived and passed by large numbers of the armed soldiers gathered along the street. The group of young escorters was still gathered in a park close to the entrance of the bazaar that leads into the square. The atmosphere was tense but quiet.
After an hour, the team received a phone call that saying shooting and tear gas explosions had begun inside the square. The husband of one of the team's partners was in the hospital because of tear gas inhalation. The team continued to receive phone calls from organizers still at the square who reporter that many of the demonstrators could not leave, because soldiers had surrounded them.
The team contacted the U.S. Consulate to report the situation. The position of the U.S. is that the people have a right to hold nonviolent demonstrations without fear of attack by the Kurdistan government. The Consulate has intervened a number of times in the past when armed soldiers threatened unarmed demonstrators.
After CPT reported the current situation, the Consulate representative said the diplomats were hearing conflicting stories. The team decided to return to the square to see the situation first hand. Upon arrival, the team saw at least one thousand armed soldiers surrounding the square. About fifty to one hundred demonstrators were still at the stage. The team members, although blocked by a line of soldiers, were eventually able make their way towards the stage.
At the same time, many soldiers with clubs dashed towards the stage and began hitting people on the head. The team heard shots fired in the distance and saw ambulances were everywhere. Civilians who were trying to go home from the bazaar got caught in the mayhem. A few of the soldiers came at the CPTers with clubs and they retreated.
The team then found a fairly safe place on the outside of a ring of soldiers and watched as people were clubbed, loaded into ambulances, arrested, and chased further back. Water cannons appeared along with more soldiers armed with tear gas grenades and guns. The team made eye contact with the soldiers and flashed the sign of peace. Some soldiers looked confused, others nodded their heads and gave signs that they would not shoot. One soldier fluent in English told the team that the soldiers had come to the square because some of the young male escorters were throwing rocks by the gate of the bazaar. The team asked why the military was in the square, where no one was throwing rocks, he had to leave and deal with another skirmish before he could answer.
The team called the U.S. Consulate giving continuous first hand reports. The Consulate representative called all high-level KRG authorities. The number of injuries from the day is not yet known.