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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 March 2006, 11:42 GMT
Kurds take out anger on Halabja monument
By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News

On 16 March every year since 1988, Kurds have gathered in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja to commemorate one of the worst atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime: the gassing of some 5,000 of the town's residents.

Halabja monument
The 30m-high Halabja monument was engulfed in smoke
Halabja's horrific history is symbolised by a 30-metre-tall triangular structure in the centre of town.

The names of the dead are inscribed in white on the black marble walls of a circular hall. There are photos of disfigured residents and lifeless children piled on top of each other and statues replicating scenes from the attack.

But this year, the monument became a symbol for something else - the anger of local people at what they perceive to be corruption and neglect.

As officials prepared for a day of mourning, angry protesters took to the streets chanting "down, down with the government".

By the end of the day, between 3,000 and 5,000 people - including many relatives of those who had died in the gas attacks - had joined the protest.


Groups clashed with security forces, one person was killed and the monument was torched, sending black smoke billowing over the town.

So why had the monument been the focus of such anger?

Just two years ago, the then top US administrator in Iraq L Paul Bremer stood at the Halabja Monument with Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, who is now president of Iraq.

Mr Bremer said the town served as proof that the US-led invasion of Iraq was justified, and that the coalition would establish a $1m fund for Halabja. Mr Talabani urged people to "come to Halabja to see how mass destruction arms (were) used."

Now, the people of the town are saying that officials have used the atrocities for their own political ends, but they have seen little in return.


The events in Halabja are evidence of growing dissatisfaction against the local government in the Kurdish area, which is dominated by two parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Mr Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Thursday's demonstration was mostly made up of young people, who accuse regional authorities of inaction, complacency, corruption and nepotism.

Protesters attacked the monument to the 1988 victims
Mariwan Hama-Saeed, a local reporter with the Institute for War and Peace reporting, was in the town during the protests.

He told the BBC News website that people were fed up with Kurdish regional government officials turning up each year to mark the anniversary but failing to deliver on promises to provide basics services and rebuild the city.

Entire neighbourhoods in the city are rubble, streets remain unpaved and schools are dingy and decrepit.

"The city suffers from major construction problems and a lack of basic services, such as water and electricity. Many people are still suffering from the effects of the chemical poisoning but there isn't the adequate health care to help them," he said.

He said this was the latest in a series of street protests in Kurdish areas over recent months, with people complaining about issues ranging from poor water and electricity to housing problems.

"Only last week there was a protest in Mr Talabani's home town," he said.


"People say if the rest of Iraq is having problems with reconstruction and lack of basic services, the excuse is because of the insurgents and the lack of security but in Kurdistan there is nothing like that - the security situation is very safe."

This safety element is drawing in foreign businesses who want to relocate from other, less secure, areas of Iraq. International aid has poured into the region and the economy is now booming in oil-rich areas such as Irbil.

Mr Hama-Saeed says that across the Kurdish region, people were questioning where the money is going. "People believe officials are using it for their own interests," he said.

Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish member of the national parliament, told the BBC News website that the local government had many problems that it needed to solve.

"They definitely have to do something, in Halabja and in others areas, otherwise there will be more problems," he said.

He said a high-level committee that included members of the regional political parties had already been set up to meet with the demonstrators and discuss their grievances.

He said the committee would also be investigating whether "enemies or terrorists" had infiltrated the protest and targeted the monument.

After previous demonstrations in the region, local authorities, have blamed militant Islamic elements for fomenting trouble, says Mr Hama-Saeed. But he said this appeared to be an attempt to deflect attention away from the civil unrest.

"I saw no evidence of this in Halabja," he said.

The Kurdish regional government has been proud of the fact that the north has, so far, escaped most of the violence that has wracked much of the rest of the country. But, as Mr Othman says they will need to act if they are to stem the growing anger.


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