By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 5, 2010; A08
SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ -- Anywhere else in Iraq, a shootout between political rivals that injured three people would have been unremarkable.
But last month's brief gun battle in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region sent chills through the three provinces in the north that are held up by U.S. officials as a beacon of stability in a country where politics and violence often intertwine.
The scuffle between forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which controls this city, and energetic supporters of a breakaway faction called Change was the most serious in what the latter calls a campaign of intimidation by the ruling power.
The violence underscored the fierce political rivalry developing in a region that until now has managed to speak with one voice in Baghdad. The Kurds in recent years have served as kingmakers in an otherwise fragmented political system, but the new discord raises questions about whether they will be able to continue in that role after parliamentary elections on Sunday. Kurds hold 58 of the 275 seats in the Iraqi parliament, making them a critical constituency for other parties seeking control of the government.
After the shootout, authorities took 11 Change supporters into custody and imposed a ban on campaign activities after 9 p.m. All but one of the supporters were released.
Critics of the two parties that have ruled the Kurdish region since 1991 say the recent violence underscores Kurds' intense desire for reform. The clashes serve as ominous reminders of a bloody, decades-long power struggle that preceded a 1998 cease-fire, but for some they are also an indication of the increasing pressure felt by the ruling parties, which have been accused of authoritarianism.
"We've asked for democracy, and it's happening," said Barham Salih, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government and a leading member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. "But some people are pushing it to the limit."
Change, a movement that broke from the PUK, has co-opted a large portion of the ruling parties' constituency through its cries for reform. Critics say the faction is no different than the parties it seeks to replace.
In Sulaymaniyah, a Kurdish city in the northeast, the streets are vibrant with rallies ahead of the elections. Change supporters wave their royal blue flags and voice support for their leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, who was once the PUK's deputy chief. Nearby, PUK supporters stage their own rallies, waving flags emblazoned with images of Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, the head of the party.
Mustafa has called for the integration of the Kurdish pesh merga militias into a regional army. The PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, the other ruling party, currently have competing security forces. Mustafa also seeks greater transparency in what he calls a corrupt government that does little for the people.
Sometimes the campaigning gets ugly. Young men threaten one another in the streets, and the PUK has dismissed about 1,700 Change loyalists from government jobs as a warning to others, say leaders and supporters of the movement. The PUK calls the figure an exaggeration.
"They're ready to start a battle for the sake of money and power," said Peshraw Ahmed Hassan Rasul, a Kurdish fighter loyal to Change who was involved in the shootout last month and was briefly arrested.
Hassan fought for independence in the mountains of the Kurdish north at a time when Saddam Hussein was killing tens of thousands of Kurds in an attempt to suppress separatist movement. Hassan, who bears the scars of those battles, served the PUK for years and was most recently head of security for Salih, the prime minister, before the pair had a fallout and he defected to Change.
Hassan said counterterrorism police officers fired at on his car during a rally last week, injuring his driver and two other men. PUK security officials said Hassan and the other men were drunk and had fired on the party's headquarters.
The ruling parties largely dismiss Change as a fad involving familiar figures who have re-branded themselves. They also called the reports of intimidation exaggerated. "As the Arabic saying goes, this is the election fever," said Massoud Barzani, president of the region and head of the Kurdish Democratic Party.
Regardless of the elections' outcomes, the Kurds are expected to be united in Baghdad as they seek to reverse a Hussein-era policy of pushing Kurds out of and moving Arabs into key cities such as Kirkuk. But Mohamad Tofiq, a spokesman for Change, said the group may oppose the two main Kurdish parties in Baghdad if it feels they are sacrificing Kurdish interests for the sake of political expediency.
Change has 25 of 111 seats in the Kurdish parliament, having chipped away at the ruling parties' power during a summer election.