By HEVIDAR AHMED and AHMED IMINKI
ZAKHO, Iraqi Kurdistanâ€” The preacher blamed for inciting widespread riots last week in Dohuk province has denied accusations that he provoked his followers into destroying businesses deemed un-Islamic.
Following Mala Ismail Osman Sindiâ€™s Friday sermon in which he claimed prostitution was occurring in massage parlors in the Kurdish border town of Zakho, a group of young men set alight the townâ€™s only massage parlor, a dozen liquor stores and three hotels. Many of the businesses were owned by minority Christian Assyrians and Yezidis.
The violence later spread to the city of Dohuk and Sumel, where rioters torched the offices of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, ransacked.
In an interview with Rudaw, Sindi said, â€œIâ€™m not the only one talking about massage parlors. Everyone else is talking about it and I may have been the last person to address that issue. In my sermon, I only said that instead of massage parlors, people should build mosques.â€
Saeed Ibrahim, a resident of Zakho who attended Sindiâ€™s service, told Rudaw, â€œAfter the mullah spoke about massage parlors, one man stood up and shouted â€˜Since there are haram (un-Islamic) things in Zakho, we should not tolerate it and we should destroy them.â€™â€
Sindi confirmed that someone indeed stood up and encouraged people to burn the massage parlors.
â€œI only said that instead of massage parlors, people should build mosques.â€
â€œBut I told him that if he left to attack the parlors before the Friday sermon was over, his prayers wouldnâ€™t be accepted (by God),â€ said Sindi. â€œThe person was a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union.â€
Samyan Abdulkhaliq, director of the office of religious affairs in Zakho, told Rudaw that they will investigate Sindi.
â€œWeâ€™ll investigate and if we find out that that mullah did indeed encourage people to be disruptive, we will take our own measures with him even before the courts take the case,â€ he said.
An eyewitness to Fridayâ€™s incidents in Zakho told Rudaw, â€œAfter the Friday sermon, a large number of people gathered in front of the massage parlor, attacked and set it on fire. Later on, they stormed liquor stores and womenâ€™s hair salons.â€
Ramazan Ismail Mustafa, head of the tourism department in Zakho said, â€œTwenty liquor stores, three hotels, a massage parlor and a womenâ€™s hair salon were set on fire.â€
According to Ismail Mustafa Rashid, the mayor of the town of Sumel, four liquor stores were burnt in their town.
Zakho is located on Iraqi Kurdistanâ€™s border with Turkey. It is about 300 miles north of Baghdad and less than 10 kilometers from Turkey, and is considered one of the most important trade gateways of Iraq.
Zakho is an ethnically and religiously diverse town where Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Armenians and some Arab families live side by side.
According to eyewitnesses, some rioters tried to attack the Christian quarter of town on Friday, but the guards of political party offices opened fire above peopleâ€™s heads and stopped them from reaching the neighborhood.
Later on Friday, a group of people torched an Islamic Union office in Zakho. Later the Islamic Unionâ€™s offices were stormed in Duhok, Sumel and Kasrok.
Ismail Ravandi, a member of the Islamic Unionâ€™s leadership, told Rudaw, â€œIn total, 10 of our party offices were destroyed in Duhok province, among them radio, TV stations and newspaper offices.â€
Ghazi Saeed, the head of the Islamic Unionâ€™s branch in Dohuk, estimated the damage was about US$10 million.
Following last weekâ€™s unrest, the Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which controls Dohuk province, exchanged sharp words and accusations.
The KDP held the Islamic Union responsible for causing the violence and the Islamic Union said the people who attacked its offices were members of the KDP.
Abu Zerro, KDPâ€™s acting representative in Zakho said, â€œItâ€™s so obvious. A few days before the incidents, plans (for the attack) had been drawn up inside the local offices of the Islamic Union; therefore, the Islamic Union is responsible for what happened.â€
But Nasraddin Saeed, head of the Islamic Unionâ€™s branch in Zakho, rejected the KDPâ€™s claims, saying, â€œIt was only an excuse to attack our offices.â€
Saeed said, â€œWe heard the KDP was planning to attack our offices and we immediately called the cityâ€™s police chief, but he said â€˜You are behind the unrest and youâ€™ll have to pay the price.â€™â€
KDPâ€™s Abu Zerro said that Saeed made the situation worse by talking to the media and saying that his office was under threat before anything had happened.
â€œWe immediately called the cityâ€™s police chief, but he said â€˜You are behind the unrest and youâ€™ll have to pay the price.â€™â€
â€œI tried to get in touch with him and tell him to try to calm down the situation,â€ Abu Zerro said. â€œIf, in his statement to the media, he had told people to maintain order, their offices wouldnâ€™t have been attacked.â€
Ashti Kochar, Dohukâ€™s security chief, told Rudaw that the Islamic Union seemed to have braced itself for the attacks at least a week in advance.
â€œA week before the incidents, the Islamic Union evacuated all their buildings in Zakho and one night before the incidents, they broadcasted a program on their television channel in which they encouraged people to act against liquor stores and massage parlors.â€
Abdulwahid Taha, an anchor at the Islamic Unionâ€™s local TV channel in Zakho, said the channel had aired a program the night before the attacks where viewers called in and expressed their anger against the cityâ€™s liquor stores and massage parlors.
â€œOn the day of the attacks, the Islamic Unionâ€™s main office was completely evacuated hours before the mob reached them,â€ Taha said.
In a press conference on Saturday, Salahaddin Bahaddin, secretary-general of the Islamic Union, held the KDP responsible for the attacks on his partyâ€™s offices.
â€œYesterdayâ€™s events in the Badinan region didnâ€™t have anything to do with Islamic Union,â€ Bahaddin said. â€œThose events are scenarios to kill any chance of reform and peace. Therefore we hold the KDP, Kurdistanâ€™s presidency and the government responsible for those attacks on our offices and we will take matter to court.â€
On Friday, the KDP condemned the violent acts in an official statement. The KDP also rejected the claims of the Islamic Union accusing the KDP of inciting people to storm their offices.
Jaafar Ibrahim, spokesperson for KDPâ€™s politburo said, â€œAccusing the KDP is unfair. The events were still unfolding when a group of people started accusing the KDP of causing it all. It reminded us of the events of February 17 when our office (in Sulaimani) was attacked and they later blamed us for it.â€
Ibrahim said he doesnâ€™t think one mullah alone could incite that much violence.
â€œWhat happened in Zakho was pre-planned,â€ he said. â€œMany other mullahs have said things more hostile than the mullah in Zakho and yet no one acted on their words. But in Zakho, it was obviously a plan and some people waved banners reading â€˜There Is No God but Allah.â€™ Groups of people had been assigned to attack certain places.â€
But the Islamic Union denied any connections to the violence.
A statement by the party read, â€œThe Islamic Union does not have any preachers in that city (Zakho) to justify the violence.â€
Ravandi, of the Islamic Union, said, â€œWhy did the police and security forces not seal off the offices of the Islamic Union? Not only that, the police stood among the people and looked on, without doing anything to stop them.â€
KDPâ€™s Abu Zerro in Zakho said, â€œThe riots were huge and there werenâ€™t enough security forces to control it all. The security forces were busy maintaining the cityâ€™s security and if there were enough of them to protect the Islamic Union offices, they would have also been able to protect the liquor stores and massage parlors.â€
â€œThe riots were huge and there werenâ€™t enough security forces to control it all.â€
On Saturday, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani released a statement in which he condemned the incidents of Zakho.
â€œUnfortunately, on Friday some mullahs and a group of youth committed unlawful acts and caused instability in Zakho,â€ Barzaniâ€™s statement read. â€œThey attacked some tourist locations especially those of Christians and Yezidis and it seems the attacks had been pre-planned.â€
Barzani said instability in the Kurdistan region is unacceptable and that a special committee will investigate Fridayâ€™s incidents and bring the perpetrators to justice.
â€œProtecting harmony among Kurdish communities is not only the responsibility of Kurdistan government,â€ he said in his statement. â€œItâ€™s everyoneâ€™s responsibility and we wonâ€™t allow anyone to threaten this harmony.â€
Barzani also described the attacks on the Islamic Union as â€œan unjust act.â€