For Kurds, A Surge Of Violence In Campaign

By Jonathan Finer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 14, 2005

DAHUK, Iraq -- When hundreds of rioters ransacked and torched the Kurdistan Islamic Union office in this northern Iraqi city last week, their message seemed as clear as the electric-blue graffiti left on the building's blackened shell.

Spray-painted across a stone facade dimpled with hundreds of bullet holes were the words "Long live 730," the numerical ballot designation for the political alliance led by Iraq's two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Along a stairwell, someone had written "traitors."

Mobs carried out similar daylight attacks in four other cities in normally tranquil Dahuk province on Dec. 6, destroying offices of the Islamic Union, which quit the alliance last month to field its own candidates in Thursday's parliamentary elections. Four party members were killed, including two shot in the head here in the provincial capital who died of their wounds Saturday. Dozens were injured, many of them police officers.

Although U.S. officials consider the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq a model of what the rest of the country could someday become, the attacks last week were another reminder that Iraqis have been slow to discard the politics of force and intimidation in the country's lurch toward democracy. They also suggest that as Iraqis prepare to choose their first full-term government since the ouster of Saddam Hussein, some of the deepest social fissures lie not just among its large communities, but within them.

"Is there any doubt the big parties punished us for leaving the coalition? It is impossible that anything like this can happen here without their hand in it," said Omar Badi, an Islamic Union candidate for parliament, standing beside the wreckage of 21 cars set ablaze that day. "This had to be organized. It did not happen spontaneously."

Local officials and police said the KDP, the dominant power in the province, had not orchestrated the attacks. Public animosity had built for weeks against the Islamic Union, a Sunni Muslim party, for portraying the coming election as a clash of believers and nonbelievers in a region known for secularism and religious tolerance, politicians and residents said.

"The Islamic Union must share blame. They stirred this up. Their ideology led to an incident we didn't want," said Dahuk Gov. Tamar Ramadan, who, like the province's police chief and most members of the provincial council, is a member of the KDP. "We wanted to stop it, and we tried to. But it is impossible to stand against a crowd so large."

The following account is based on information from several witnesses to last week's violence and two videos provided by the Islamic Union, as well as interviews with party officials from all sides involved, police and independent election monitors in Dahuk, a city of about 400,000 people less than 50 miles from the border with Turkey.

Dahuk city is nestled in a lush valley ringed by bald, craggy peaks. The undisputed local power is the KDP, led by Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, whose pugnacious style draws comparisons to Hussein. A hulking statue of Barzani's father, Mustafa, a revered Kurdish separatist leader who founded the KDP in 1946, stands at the edge of the city.

Campaign Heats Up

While the KDP and the PUK have occasionally fought for control over the Kurdish independence movement they jointly lead, they and other Kurdish parties formed a united slate for last January's parliamentary elections. But this time, frustrated by its lack of influence within the alliance, the Islamic Union decided to run on its own, members said.

"The rights of the Kurds in Iraq were secured, and we wanted to work on other issues," said Badi. "We are a separate party and we have the freedom to do this."

The Islamic Union soon began airing advertisements on a party-owned radio station calling the local government corrupt and comparing the coming election to Uhud, a 7th-century battle between early Muslims and nonbelievers.

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