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Halabja Protest Tests Kurdish Unity


Last week most of the world's media was focusing on major military operations in southern Iraq. Little attention was given to the significance of Kurdish protests in Halabja, which destroyed a museum dedicated to Kurdish victims of a 1988 poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein. As VOA's Brian Padden reports, this outbreak of Kurd-on-Kurd violence in Iraq illustrates tension, mostly below the surface, between the desire for real democratic change and the need for unity.

The Halabja memorial, which was full of pictures and artwork commemorating the 5,000 Kurds killed by a poison gas attack launched by Saddam Hussein in 1988, was a symbol of Kurdish unity against oppression. But last week on March 16th, the anniversary of the gas attack, Kurdish protesters destroyed their own memorial.

Andrew Apostolou, a Washington-based Iraq analyst says this attack reveals the tensions that exist in post-Saddam Kurdistan. Young Kurds in particular, he says, are tired of what they see as a closed, unresponsive and corrupt government. "One of the problems at the moment in Kurdistan is that there's a feeling from the younger generation that the political system is not open to them. And they see this as the only away out."

Unity, he says, is necessary for Kurds to maintain any power against the Sunnis and Shi'ites in greater Iraq. Unity has brought relative peace and progress to Kurdistan. And unity must take precedence over political reform as long as sectarian violence remains a serious threat to Iraqi stability.

"So unity comes before pluralism. If we were to see an end to violence, and that's really a decision that the Sunni Arab community alone can make, then you would see much more change."

And while Mr. Apostolou does not condone the violence, he says the fact that Kurdish protesters felt safe to take to the streets was a sign a political progress.

"The good thing is this, the fact that people feel empowered to raise their voices, which they wouldn't have done before. And that's because you have 140,000 Americans there. I mean one of the key things ensuring that there is variety of opinion in Iraq, is the presence of the Americans."

He says maintaining unity while encouraging real democratic reform will require a significant American military presence there for years to come.