HALABJA, Kurdistan Region - Kurdistan lawmakers voted Thursday on the Halabja administration bill in an exceptional session outside the official parliament building in the city itself.
It was the seventh time the Kurdish parliament had met outside its headquarters in Erbil, and the first time that legislators announced a Kurdish city a province. House Speaker Dr. Yusif Muhammad Sadiq called the step “historical,” because it proved that Kurds are in control of their own affairs.
The bill provides a legal framework for appointing the Halabja Provincial Council, comprising no more than 25 seats, the selection of the governor and his two deputies.
Halabja could not run a provincial election of its own with the rest of the Kurdistan Region in April 2014, as the decision to turn the city into a province came just a month before, on March 16. Instead, the city voted for their representatives as part of the Provincial Council of Sulaimani Governorate.
The current Iraqi President Fouad Masoum and the Kurdistan House Speaker are both from Halabja.
Many Halabja residents queued in colorful Kurdish outfits outside the Halabja Monument, the memorial site for the victims of the 1988 Halabja attack. They were welcoming Kurdish legislators, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) delegation headed by deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani and guests from the Iraqi parliament. Also present were Kurdish Iraqi MPs, who could secure the official recognition of the city’s new status in the 2015 Iraqi federal budget with the allocation of a nominal budget of 2 billion Iraqi dinars (approximately $1.5 million) for the development of the city.
Although officially Halabja would become the fourth province of Kurdistan -- after Erbil, Sulaimani and Duhok -- the people of Halabja and Kurds at large regard it as the fifth, after the much-debated Kirkuk Province, seen as the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan.”
Since the chemical attack by the Iraqi regime on March 16, 1988 on the city, which led to the deaths of an estimated 5,000 people, many of them women and children -- and almost all of them civilians -- the city has become the symbol of Kurdish resistance against the repressive Iraqi regime.
While the city internationally is known for its tragic event in the past at the hands of the Iraqi government, locally the city is also celebrated for having the first female mayor in the history of Kurdistan. Adela Khanem – or Lady Adela – was effectively mayor from 1909 until her death in 1924, a time in which culture and literature flourished. She is the mother of two renowned poets, Ahmad Mukhtar Jaf and Tahir Bagi Jaf.
The Kurdish parliament also named Halabja the capital of peace in September 2014 for its sacrifices for the Kurdish cause. But it seems there is more to peace in the city: the Halabja office of the Independent Commission for Human Rights has stated that violence against women is lowest compared to other parts of the Kurdistan Region. While the Kurdistan parliament speaker stated in July 2014 that the killing of women has ruined the public image of the Kurdistan Region, Halabja has continued to have zero so-called “honor killings” for several years -- perhaps a model to look up to in the region’s fight against gender-based violence.
The first decision to turn Halabja into a province by the Kurdish parliament was in 1999, but practical steps started to emerge in December 2013, as the Iraqi Council of Ministers approved a bill -- proposed by the KRG -- to put it before the Iraqi parliament for approval. The Iraqi parliament seemed reluctant, but then House Speaker Osama Nujaifi instructed that it was within the power of the KRG to name the city a province.
Many local campaigners, especially university students and civil society activists, gathered support for the decision through lobbying and collecting signatures from citizens across the Kurdish cities. But the most effective push for the decision came as Halabja residents staged their biggest rally ever in favor of the motion on March 2, 2014, calling on Kurdish authorities to decide on the motion in Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Council of Ministers signed the parliament decision on March 13, 2014, and on the anniversary day of the chemical attack President Massoud Barzani signed the decision into law.
The majority of Halabja residents are Muslims. Kakeis, an ancient Kurdish religious group, also live in the province. Sorani and Hawrami are the two Kurdish dialects spoken in the province.
According to some historical sources, the modern foundation of Halabja today goes back to the early 18th century. It was designated as a district by the Ottomans in 1889.
However, a German archaeological team has discovered an urban center older than Babylon called Bakr Awa, within sight of the main road leading to the city of Halabja. The German team from the University of Heidelberg believes the city is no less than 5,000 years old.
Halabja is a member of Mayors for Peace, an international organization of cities dedicated to the promotion of peace that was established in 1982 at the initiative of the then mayor of Hiroshima. Halabja mayor Khdir Karim holds the vice presidency of the organization.