Early in December, locals in the northern Iraqi town of Zakho, near the Iraqi-Turkish border, were shocked by a riot that appeared to erupt spontaneously after prayers one Friday afternoon.
Stores selling alcohol were set on fire as was tourist accommodation and a massage parlour. Then shortly after these incidents, several offices belonging to the Kurdistan Islamic Party, a local political party, were also attacked.
And since then, there have been further similar incidents elsewhere in the semi-autonomous and mostly stable region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Such as the attack on a Sulaymaniyah massage parlour, reported by Kurdish news agency AK News, several days later. And often it appeared as though there were religious motives at work: many of the businesses attacked were owned by local Christians or practitioners of the Kurdish Yazidi religion. However this is just because of the nature of the businesses: both of these religions do not prohibit alcohol consumption.
At first glance, the riots apparently occurred after a sermon by one preacher on Friday Dec. 2. But in an interview with a Kurdish newspaper the preacher, or mullah, who was accused of inciting the riots said that he had only claimed that there was prostitution going on in the massage parlours.
“In my sermon, I only said that instead of massage parlours, people should build mosques,” the preacher Mala Ismail Osman Sindi told the newspaper.
Another local man who also attended the sermon said that “after the mullah spoke about massage parlours, one man stood up and shouted, “Since there are haram [un-Islamic] things in Zakho, we should not tolerate it and we should destroy them”.”
Since then, a special committee has been set up to investigate the riots. However presently it still remains unclear as to who is at fault. What is clear though is that the various political organizations involved have been trying to lay blame on one another.
The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan – dominated by two major parties there, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – blamed one of the opposition parties in the region, the Kurdish Islamic Party (KIU) for the riot. And eye witnesses, including the preacher, appear to agree that the man who stood up in the sermon was affiliated with the KIU. However the newspaper that reported this information is also seen by some as affiliated with the KDP.
And the KIU, which is based on religious principles, engages in charitable work and has a policy of non-violence as well as close links to parties like the Muslim Brotherhood, denied that they had anything to do with the riots. They said the preacher involved was actually affiliated with the KDP.
In fact, in an interview with NIQASH, Salah al-Din Babiker, the spokesperson for the KIU, implied that the incidents might all be due to a plot against the KIU, an unofficial action by officials against a popular opposition party that was, according to polls, becoming more popular than ever. The KIU had also been in the throes of organizing cooperation between itself and several other opposition parties in the region, including the popular Change (or Goran) party.
The Change party has eight seats in the federal parliament in Baghdad but walked away from the larger Kurdish Alliance, now primarily made up of the KDP and PUK, because they felt the latter would not heed their calls for a more open democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan.
According to eyewitnesses, the attacks on the shops and hotels in Zakho began at around 4pm and continued through to 6pm. "During these two hours, security and police forces were just watching and didn’t do anything to stop the attacks," Babiker said. “When people began burning the first shop, why didn\'t the police stop them from burning other shops?" He believed it was strange that the police didn’t do anything to prevent the rioters.
After the various businesses were attacked, the KIU officials received word that they had been blamed for the rioters’ behaviour and that there would be retaliatory attacks on their own KIU premises.
"We informed the security forces and the government about this intended attack four hours before they actually happened,” Babiker recalls. “But nobody cared and nobody came. They just allowed people to burn our offices.”
The offices were evacuated and some sources have said this indicated that the KIU were prepared and were actually behind the riots. The KIU has even been accused of setting its own offices alight in a plan to destabilize the region. “Why would anybody burn his own house?,” Babiker told NIQASH. “We’ve heard these accusations and we consider them illogical.”
Babiker says the groups that came and set the KIU premises alight did not seem to be scared of anything. KIU officials knew some of the individuals who carried out the attacks on their offices, he said. “We have their names and we know their political affiliations,” Babiker explained, “and we will release that information at the appropriate time.”
Of course, the suspicion is that those who attacked the KIU offices were associated with, or members of, the ruling KDP or PUK parties. And some senior KDP officials agree with this theory. However they say that if any of their party members were involved in the riots, this would not have been because the KDP ordered them to but simply a natural reaction to attacks on the other businesses in Zakho
However Babiker disputes this. He says that after the arson attacks on the KIU offices, the rioters arrived with construction equipment and began to demolish the KIU’s broadcasting equipment. “Can something like that – an attack on television equipment – really be considered a natural civilian reaction?,” he asked. “And even if it was, then where were the security forces?”
Additionally, local authorities then began arresting individuals they thought were responsible, some of whom are apparently still in custody.
“But the authorities did not arrest any of their own [KDP] party members,” Babiker noted. “Even those who carried out the attacks on shops and public places, and those who attacked our headquarters, are still free. Even the preacher was not investigated or arrested.”
Some observers have speculated that the riots and arson attacks may actually be due to the fact that the ruling parties in Iraqi Kurdistan are currently plagued by internal conflicts: “These events are their manifestations,” the bi-weekly, independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati (the Citizen), based in Sulaymaniyah, speculated recently.
Babiker himself concluded by stating that his party’s philosophy is far from being about sponsoring acts of violence or inciting religious riots.
“Everyone knows that we have publicly announced our strategies since 1994. Throughout our 18 year history, we have never been involved in any violent act or encouraged public disruptions,” he states.