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.
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the Kurdish regional government has spent millions of dollars on development projects and security in villages, becoming the de-facto state in areas long overlooked by the central and provincial governments.
In Nineveh province Sunday, Arab and Kurdish candidates traded allegations of electoral misconduct. Both camps said partisan security forces steered voters away from voting for their rivals and in some instances campaigned openly at polling sites.
But no group said irregularities had disenfranchised a large portion of the electorate, and party leaders said the biggest problem -- incomplete voter registration rosters -- appeared to affect voters across ethnic and political lines.
"Compared to D.C. voting, these guys were organized," said Diane Crow, a U.S. diplomat based in Mosul who served as an observer.
Faraj al-Hadari, the head of Iraq's electoral commission, said that the panel was investigating numerous complaints but that none appeared to be serious. At a news conference Sunday morning in Baghdad, he said that roughly 51 percent of Iraq's 15 million registered voters turned out for Saturday's elections for provincial councils, the equivalent of state legislatures in the United States.
Turnout in Nineveh, at roughly 60 percent, was among the highest in the country. In Anbar and Baghdad provinces, about 40 percent of registered voters participated. After the results are certified, new councils will appoint governors for 14 of Iraq's 18 provinces. Preliminary results are expected later this week.
Faris al-Bakooa, a representative of al-Hadba-a, said polling went smoothly.
"There is no election that is 100 percent correct," he said. "As far as this election goes, the problems appear to have been little."
Bakooa said one of the party's observers was beaten at a polling station Saturday. "It makes us proud," he said. "If the party wasn't powerful, people wouldn't beat us."
In the weeks leading up to the elections, U.S. officials brokered a deal between the Iraqi army and the pesh merga, the Kurdish regional government's armed force, to have a combination of forces stationed at polls in disputed areas. The arrangement was deemed necessary because the two forces came close to an armed confrontation a few months ago in neighboring Diyala province and have been used by Kurds and the central government to exert control over disputed areas.
U.S. and U.N. officials dispatched more observers to Nineveh's disputed areas than to any other province on election day. American military officials, citing intelligence reports, said they had expected attempted suicide bombings near polling sites, attempted kidnappings of foreigners and roadside bombings. U.S. Military Police soldiers drove observers to polling stations in armored fighting vehicles. But not a single violent act targeting voters or candidates was reported Saturday.
"One of the questions out there is: Did the terrorists try to disrupt this and fail?" the U.S. official said. "Or did they want this to go well? Maybe the insurgency feels represented by a political platform."
Herky, the Kurdish council member, said it was surely the latter.
"The political groups that were affiliated with al-Qaeda have now decided that violence is not the way," he said, in a snub to the Arab parties, which Kurds have accused of having links to insurgents. Sunni Arab politicians have denied that allegation.
Gen. Robert Brown, the top U.S. military commander in Mosul, said he hoped citizens would see the outcome of the elections as legitimate, unlike in 2005, when allegations of fraud by Kurdish operatives were widespread and well documented.
"I'm very hopeful this will give us irreversible momentum," Brown said.
Special correspondents K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and Dlovan Brwari in Nineveh province contributed to this report.