Kurdish Gathering Spirals into Violent Protest

For the past two decades, Kurds have traditionally gathered in Halabja, Iraq, in mid-March to mark a grim chapter in their history: the day when Saddam Hussein's government unleashed a poison-gas attack that killed more than 5,000 people. Thursday, that normally peaceful commemoration turned turbulent.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. As the U.S. military launched its massive assault north of Baghdad this week, there was unexpected violence much further to the north. In Iraqi Kurdistan, normally the most stable part of Iraq, demonstrators clashed with government guards in the city of Halabja, and there were separate clashes involving Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey. We'll hear a report from Turkey in a few moments, but first to Halabja, Iraq, where Kurdish protestors attacked and burned a museum yesterday. The site is dedicated to the memory of 5,000 Kurds who died in poison gas attacks ordered by Saddam Hussein in 1988. Robert Worth covered the story for the New York Times.

ROBERT WORTH: The protest began as a group of really local people from Halabja expressing their anger about what they call government corruption here. They say that the party that really runs eastern Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, usually called the PUK, has used the memory of the Halabja attack in 1988 to get donations from around the world and then has hoarded that money, has essentially stolen the money that should be going to Halabja. There has been anger about this growing for a long time, and it really burst over yesterday.

NORRIS: This gathering was not the peaceful gathering that you normally see at this shrine.

WORTH: Well, there were a lot of PUK militia members at the demonstration. They were watching. They were filming, in an obvious sort of threat to identify and possibly later arrest the ringleaders of the demonstration. And they actually beat up a few of the demonstrators. This made the demonstrators angry, and eventually they marched towards the museum. The PUK militiamen began to fire their guns into the air, machine gun rounds.

This just provoked more anger from the crowd, which then surged forward in a huge mass and attacked the museum. They smashed the glass windows. They ran inside. And here you have the militiamen running back to their pickup trucks and retreating. And the crowd then began to set the museum on fire and just smash it to pieces. At a certain point, the militiamen pushed back forward again and began to shoot not into the air but directly into the crowd. And they killed one 17-year-old boy. They wounded at least six others.

NORRIS: Kurdistan is widely viewed as perhaps the most stable region in Iraq. Does all this suggest that that's a widely held misperception?

WORTH: No, Kurdistan still definitely is the safest and the most stable region in Iraq. You have to remember that it doesn't have the kind of violent insurgency that you have in central Iraq, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up every day. However, it is run in an autocratic way, and, according to many of the people who protested yesterday, it is run in a very corrupt way. And anger about that has just slowly built.

NORRIS: What's the scene in Halabja today?

WORTH: Well, starting late yesterday, busloads of PUK militiamen began coming in. It was clear that they were outnumbered yesterday in the protest, so a lot more came in, and then more came in today. They've also surrounded the town, and we're hearing that they've been arresting more people. I was told yesterday by PUK officials at the press conference that they had arrested 15 people in connection with the demonstrations. The spokesman yesterday for the PUK also made some conciliatory gestures. He said that the party recognized there was corruption and they would try to address it. And it's unclear what the party will do.

NORRIS: Robert Worth, thank you so much.

WORTH: It's a pleasure.

NORRIS: Robert Worth is a correspondent for the New York Times.

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