In Iraq's North, Ethnic Strife Flares as Vote Draws Closer

Arabs Hope to Curb Power Of Kurdish Government

Voting stations opened across Iraq Wed. in places such as military camps and govt. offices for the first ballots of this week's provincial elections. The election is Saturday, but voting opened on Wed. for Iraqis needed on duty on election day. Video by AP
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

QARAQOSH, Iraq -- Iraq's upcoming provincial elections have exacerbated tensions along the ethnically mixed frontier between the traditionally Arab parts of the country and its Kurdish autonomous region in the north.

As Election Day looms in Nineveh province, where the most dramatic power shift is expected, Sunni Arab politicians are vowing to curb the influence of the Kurdish regional government, which in recent years has sent millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers into villages south of the territory it formally controls.

The 2005 elections, which most Sunni Arabs boycotted, left Nineveh province solidly in the hands of Kurds, a minority in the predominantly Arab province. The Kurds currently hold 31 of the 37 seats on the provincial council, the equivalent of an American state legislature. In the vote set for Saturday, Arabs in Nineveh are widely expected to win a comfortable majority.

Taking the reins of Nineveh's government would allow Arabs to appoint a governor and use their political power to roll back Kurdish expansion, which is being bitterly contested in villages across the 300-mile swath of disputed territories, as well as in Baghdad and in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab, and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, have exchanged heated accusations in recent weeks, underscoring the intensity of a conflict that U.S. officials and Iraq experts have come to view as Iraq's most potentially destabilizing.

The power struggle has made battlegrounds of places such as Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town, which lies about 15 miles southeast of Nineveh's capital, Mosul. Sherbel Issou, Qaraqosh's senior priest, prides himself on having kept his flock largely unscathed by war. But in recent months, as the rhetoric has sharpened and campaign promises have begun sounding like calls for battle, residents of the disputed areas are feeling squeezed.

"We're the land in between," the chipper 65-year-old priest said. "When there's a battle, it's people like us who get caught up in the front lines. We provide security for the people in this town. But we can't seal the town off to everybody."

Wedged between the devastated city of Mosul and the prosperous Kurdish autonomous region, Qaraqosh is home to roughly 40,000 Assyrian Christians, who have lived for the past five years in the shadow of the insurgency.

Largely invisible to the provincial and central governments, the town has had only one reliable, undisputed authority since 2003: the church. Shortly after the war began, the Kurdistan Democratic Party opened an office here. A banner posted at the party's headquarters proclaimed, "Under the parliament and government of the Kurdistan region, the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkmens will enjoy their rights."

Soon afterward, as violence picked up in Nineveh, Sarkis Aghajan, the Kurdish region's finance minister, began funding a Christian militia that currently has 1,200 members in Qaraqosh and surrounding villages.

"I don't ask where the money comes from," Issou said, noting that he has never bothered to determine whether it comes from the Kurdish government's coffers. "I don't want to know. They pay the salaries for those guards to feed their families, so we bless them."

Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, the Kurdish government began deploying soldiers of its militia, the pesh merga, to towns in Nineveh and other provinces that border the Kurdish region. In the years that followed, as the Iraqi army and police forces were disbanded and a burgeoning insurgency took control of vast stretches of the country, the presence of the Kurdish militia drew little criticism.

After the 2005 elections, non-Kurds in several villages in northern Iraq said the militia's soldiers had prevented them from voting. In Qaraqosh, residents awoke on Election Day thrilled by the prospect of casting votes.

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