In Iraq's North, Vote Tallies To Define Loyalties, Disputes

Millions of Iraqis voted peacefully on Jan. 31 in the country's first provincial elections since 2005.
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 2, 2009

MOSUL, Iraq, Feb. 1 -- For the northern provinces of Iraq, the outcome of elections held Saturday will provide the first snapshot in decades of demographics and loyalties in areas that have become the subject of a visceral dispute between Arabs and Kurds.

Newly elected leaders in these provinces, where Sunni Arabs are widely expected to gain political power, will be thrust into the debate over whether disputed territories, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, should be annexed to the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Iraqi and American officials say the fight has the potential to destabilize a country on the mend at a time when U.S. troops are starting to withdraw. And the United States will be caught in a dispute between the Kurds, its longtime allies, and the central government, which it has spent billions of dollars shoring up.

"It's going to be tough," a senior U.S. diplomat in Iraq said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "It's a very difficult, emotional negotiation."

Mahdi Herky, a Kurdish member of the Nineveh provincial council who ran for reelection, predicted that voting patterns would show that most residents in the disputed areas want to be part of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

"There's good evidence that these places belong to the KRG," he said Sunday as votes were being tallied. "People have been waiting for this election to know whether there's a majority of the population" that wants to break away from the central government.

Sunni Arabs, who boycotted the 2005 elections, campaigned on the promise of curbing Kurdish expansion.

"If decision-making is in the hands of Kurdish groups, they're not going to be very reasonable," said Athel Abdul Aziz al-Nujaifi, the leader of al-Hadba-a, a new Sunni Arab party that is expected to become dominant on the Nineveh council. "They're going to hold fast to areas under their power, and they're not going to allow the government in Nineveh to go into those areas."

Sunni Arab politicians accuse the Kurds of using money, threats and violence to gain control of dozens of towns and villages along the 300-mile "green line" that separates the autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of the country.

"For us Arabs, this election is a turning point," said Hamdan Juhaishy, 30, a teacher who said he voted for al-Hadba-a. "We boycotted the last election, and the result was catastrophic because we became a target for some who want to change the identity of this area."

A census conducted in the 1950s is the most recent that Iraqis on both sides of the dispute recognize as legitimate. Since then, the population has shifted dramatically and often by force, including a period during which Saddam Hussein's government displaced Kurds from the disputed areas and created incentives for Arabs to move there.

The population today is believed to be between 500,000 and 750,000, including significant numbers of Christians and Turkmens, and members of the Yazidi and Shabak religious minority groups.

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