Kurds and the Iraqi elections

With provincial elections tomorrow in Iraq, several flashpoints are in the headlines and worth watching. Newspaper reports abound with headlines and references to “Kurdish-Arab tensions” and the “Kurdish fault line.”

There are 18 provinces in Iraq. Three of them (Dahuk, Irbil, and_41227090_iraq_provinces3_map416 Sulaimaniya) form the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Three others, which border the KRG to the south (Nineveh, Tamim, and Diyala) have substantial Kurdish populations concentrated in the northern borders.

The KRG provinces will not be voting in tomorrow’s election. Nor will Tamim province, with its disputed capital city, Kirkuk.

The two provinces of Nineveh and Diyala (capitals are Mosul and Baqouba, respectively) are the areas in which the “Kurdish-Arab tensions” exist and are under close scrutiny.

In 2005 Sunni Arabs boycotted the Iraqi elections giving the Kurds more local control than otherwise would have happened. For example, Kurds comprise 30-35% of Nineveh’s population of 2.6 million. However, they currently hold 31 of 41 seats on the province’s regional council.

Nineveh’s governor, Duraid Kashmoula, is an Arab but ran for office back in 2005 with the Kurdish coalition. Many refer to him as a puppet of the Kurdish parties and consider his Kurdish deputy, Kasro Goran, the real power in his government. Both will be out of office after the election results come in, about three days after the polls close. Final results, however, must be verified by international observers.

Over the past four years the Kurds have consolidated their hold on Nineveh, Iraq’s most diverse province, with Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, Shabak, and Turkmen. Some have accused the Kurdish security in the region of harassing non-Kurdish minorities resulting in more regional divisiveness. Kurdish leaders have denied this and point to the more than 2,000 Kurds that have been killed in Mosul (capital of Nineveh) in the past few years.

One of the political contenders now in Nineveh is the Al-Hadba party, a Sunni Arab nationalist movement made up of many former Ba’athists. One of its senior leaders, Sheikh Abdullah Humaidi Yawar, labels the Kurds “racist like the former regime” and his party hopes to displace as many of the Kurdish candidates as possible. Its platform is purely anti-Kurdish and aims to roll back Kurdish power and influence in the governorate.

Another Sunni faction in the north, the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), while less extreme than Al-Hadba, has similar aspirations. Yahya Abdul Majoud of the IIP has said when they “have the ability to protect these areas, we will ask Kurdistan to leave them.” He also wants to see Iraqi army units replace Kurdish ones.

Turnout in Nineveh and Diyala is expected to be high amongst both Arabs and Kurds. The Sunni Arabs will want to reverse the results of the 2005 elections and boost their representation in local government; Kurds, wishing to counter the Arab surge in votes, will also turn out in high numbers.

In Diyala province, the northern “arm” of the governorate is predominantly Kurdish. Security in the region on election day will be provided by a joint force of Iraqi army regulars and Peshmerga forces. U.S. troops will be present as well. Security is tight all over Iraq, with borders closed, transportation bans in effect, and nighttime curfews.

Even with the added security, the lead up to the elections has not been without incident. Car bombs are less frequent, but still happen. Political assassinations are ever present. Just yesterday gunmen killed three Sunni Arab candidates. One, Hazem Salem Ahmed, a National Unity List party candidate, was shot outside his home in Mosul. Another, Abbas Farhan with the National Reform and Development Party, was shot and killed in Mandili, a small town in Diyala province near the Iranian border.

But the country is very different today than it was when Iraqis went to the polls four years ago. Fear has abated and given way to open debates over candidates and their qualifications. Still UN special representative to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, is anxious about the results of the elections, wondering if Iraq can move “from bullets to ballots” and maintain stability.

It remains to be seen how each side will perceive the election outcomes in the Nineveh and Diyala provinces. Any allegations of fraud or misrepresentation could lead to ethnic clashes and more violence.

Sources:

-Claude, P. Les élections provinciales, test de la stabilité de l’Irak, Le Monde, 30 January 2009. http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2009/01/30/en-irak-le-test-des-elections-locales_1148514_3218.html

-Hauslohner, A. Iraq’s Election Fuels Tension on Kurdish Fault Line, Time, 28 January 2009. http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1874451,00.html

Iraqis to vote in Al Qaeda’s last stronghold, Khaleej Times Online (Reuters), 29 January 2009. http://www.khaleejtimes.com/DisplayArticleNew.asp?section=middleeast&xfile=data/middleeast/2009/january/middleeast_january552.xml

Kami, A. Casting a vote against fear in Iraq, Reuters Blogs, 29 January 2009. http://blogs.reuters.com/global/2009/01/29/casting-a-vote-against-fear-in-iraq/

-Londoño, E. In Iraq’s North, Ethnic Strife Flares as Vote Draws Closer. Washington Post (Foreign Service), 28 January 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2009/01/27/ST2009012703537.html

-Parker, N. and U. Redha. Arabs, Kurds take their fight to polls. LA Times, 25 January 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-fg-iraq-mosul25-2009jan25,0,2818213.story

Poll candidates killed in Iraq, Al Jazeera, 30 January 2009. http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2009/01/2009129175338701596.html

-Susman, T. Iraq voters cast early ballots in provincial elections. LA Times, 29 January 2009. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-iraq-elections29-2009jan29,0,5353439.story

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