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In Kurdish North, Campaign Turns Into a Street Party

'We Were Dreaming for This Day to Come'

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page A16

IRBIL, Iraq, Jan. 27 -- Adnan Ismael raced to the back of the campaign bus carrying supporters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and frantically pulled aside a dark blue curtain so he could see out.

Hundreds of honking cars were following behind in an impromptu rolling celebration late Thursday afternoon through this ancient city. Passengers hung out of vehicles, shouting and waving the yellow flag of the KDP and the red, white and green flag of the Kurdish semiautonomous region here in northern Iraq.

Barzan Mahmoud, 16, waves a banner in an impromptu political parade through the streets of Irbil on Thursday, the last official day for campaigning. (Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

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Ismael turned from the window, a stunned look on his face.

Inside the bus, a group of aging, bewhiskered former guerrilla fighters struck up an old revolutionary song. Their eyes brimmed with tears as they sang in husky voices: "Our flag is waving high in the sky. We are still alive. The Kurds are alive. There is no cannon that will break our will."

"We were dreaming for this day to come," said Ismael, the KDP leader for Irbil's Tajil district, who darted back and forth to get a look at the scene unfolding on every side of the bus. "Now we will all choose our representatives for the future. Every Kurd wishes to see this day."

On the last official day for campaigning before Sunday's national elections, candidates and their supporters here in the Kurds' administrative capital blasted old Kurdish songs from loudspeakers at party headquarters, waved to passing cars from plastic chairs lined up on sidewalks and raced through the streets in caravans with flying banners. Unlike in many parts of Iraq, where fears of insurgent violence and doubts about the political process have muted voter enthusiasm, there was nothing tempered about the elections here, where voters will help select members of a new National Assembly, choose regional councils and pick a Kurdish parliament.

Throughout Irbil, there was a sense that something big was about to happen, as if the whole city had turned out for a wedding party.

"I am very happy," said Faruq Nabil, 24, a laborer with thick black hair and green eyes. "Since I was born, this is the first time I will go and elect the government. I want to thank Mr. George W. Bush for his efforts in making this happen."

Sarbaz Qader, who owns a small bicycle repair shop, said he was overwhelmed with joy. "I will vote, and I am not afraid of anyone, whoever he is," Qader said.

Iraqi Kurds, who were by turns persecuted, displaced and massacred during the rule of Saddam Hussein, widely see the vote on Sunday as the end of an era in which they were underrepresented or simply shut out of national politics. To prevent Kurdish factions from splitting the vote and losing out on seats in the new 275-member National Assembly, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurds' two predominant parties and historical rivals, joined with other political groups in the region to form a unified slate of candidates.

"We believe that for the whole of Iraq, all parts of Kurdistan should be presented as one body," said Salahadin Babaker, a board member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union. "The Kurds and the people living in Kurdistan need some certain or concrete evidence to work toward ensuring the rights of the Kurds in the new constitution."

Nevertheless, the political atmosphere in Irbil was palpably partisan, in large part, party leaders said, because the various parties will be battling one another in the regional elections. The bulk of the Kurdish population identifies -- on the basis of geography or ancestry -- with either the KDP or the PUK.

The far north, including Irbil, is KDP territory. The party's banners were predominant throughout, security forces emblazoned their vehicles with KDP stickers and flags, and even Iraqi National Guardsmen honked and waved when they passed KDP rallies.

A banner hung on the General Directorate of Irrigation and Water Resources advised voters to support the KDP in municipal and regional elections, and a large yellow KDP flag flew from the top of the building.

The PUK also has a presence here, although it has a much lower profile. Shaqhaan Mohammad, a party leader, said the PUK had advised members to refrain from partisanship, at least for now. "We've asked our loyalists not to celebrate and show off in a way that will make the other parties upset," he said. "We don't want to provoke the other side."

The KDP was clearly under no such constraints Thursday. Its caravans roared past local PUK offices while supporters of the rival party watched silently.

Both parties have increased their handouts in the months leading up to the election. The KDP said it gives free cooking gas to the unemployed and has increased its payouts to widowers, martyrs and the disabled from about $60 to $200.

Raqeeb Shekhan, who is in charge of payments for the city's Tajil district, said the money was not intended to influence the elections. "Before the elections, we were helping our community," he said.

Shekhan spent most of Thursday sitting on a red plastic chair on a sidewalk in front of the local party office. He acknowledged waves from passing motorists with a nod of his head. When a bus showed up to take party leaders to the caravan staging point outside the main party headquarters, Shekhan was one of the first on the bus. He sat down in the front.

"We waited for this a long time," he said, his head wrapped in a black and white traditional headdress. "We've ached for this freedom. We want to be like the rest of the world."

Special correspondent Sarok Abdulla Ahmed contributed to this report.

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