We’ve created one helluva mess in Iraq.
For nearly two decades, Kurds have gathered peacefully in this mountainous corner of northern Iraq to commemorate one of the blackest days in their history. It was here that Saddam Hussein’s government launched a poison gas attack that killed more than 5,000 people on March 16, 1988.
So it came as a shock when hundreds of stone-throwing protesters took to the streets here Thursday on the anniversary, beating back government guards to storm and destroy a museum dedicated to the memory of the Halabja attack.
Although Kurdistan remains a relative oasis of stability in a country increasingly threatened by sectarian violence, the protests here — which left the renowned Halabja Monument a charred, smoking ruin — starkly illustrated those challenges even in Iraq’s most peaceful region.
Many Kurds have grown angry at what they view as the corruption and tyranny of the two dominant political parties here. They accuse their regional government of stealing donations gathered to help survivors of the poison gas attack. The town’s residents chose Thursday to close off the town’s main road and rally against government corruption. When government guards fired weapons over the protesters’ heads, the crowd went wild and attacked the monument.
“All the money given by foreign countries has been stolen,” said Sarwat Aziz, 24, as he marched to the museum in a crowd of furious, chanting young men. “After 18 years, Halabja is still full of debris from the war, we don’t even have decent roads.”
By all appearances, the attack on the Halabja Monument was an authentic expression of popular rage. The crowd contained young and old, men and women. Most seemed to view the museum — which was inaugurated in September 2003 at a ceremony attended by Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state — as the prop of an unjust government.
The protest began about 9 a.m., when local residents poured onto Halabja’s main road and ignited tires. As the crowd grew, protesters moved toward the monument and hurled stones at a sign outside that read, in Kurdish, “No Baathists Allowed Here.” It collapsed in pieces.
About 40 Patriotic Union of Kurdistan guards, gathered around the monument, began firing long machine-gun bursts into the air. The sound echoed like thunderclaps against the towering wall of snow-capped mountains that forms the Iranian border, a few miles away.
The shooting only enraged the crowd, and as the guards retreated in a panic, the protesters reached the monument and began smashing its windows and glass display cases with stones. Inside, protesters poured propane from a can and set fire to it. Within minutes, flames were licking from the windows and a thick column of black smoke was twisting into the bright blue sky.
The security guards moved back toward the monument, and some began firing weapons into the retreating crowd. One bullet sliced through the chest of Kurdistan Ahmed, a 17-year-old high school student, and he collapsed onto the grass, dying.