Oppressed and culturally marginalized for centuries, the Kurds of northern Iraq were euphoric Sunday as they sensed an election outcome likely to enhance their political power and deliver to them the fabled and contested oil city of Kirkuk.
Women in sequined dresses and men in suits and traditional baggy pants streamed through city streets and navigated snowy mountains in an atmosphere resembling a sprawling block party. Security was tight across the country, but the Kurdish north, alive with dancing, honking horns and fluttering banners, was more at ease than other regions.
“God has shined himself upon us,” said Saima Said Haider, an embroidered veil bordering her face as she waited to vote amid hills scattered with shepherds and Iraqi army snipers. “It is like a feast. We are voting for peace and prosperity and to remember the blood of our martyrs killed by Saddam Hussein. I hope through my vote I’m securing the happiness of my children.”
The Kurds were seeking two victories in the election. The first was to collect enough seats in the 275-member Iraqi national assembly to grant the north wider autonomy and a stronger influence in the drafting of a federal constitution. The second was to achieve a political majority in Kirkuk, which accounts for 40% of Iraq’s oil supply and is seen by Kurds as their cultural and historical right.
Voter turnout around the northern provincial capitals of Irbil and Sulaymaniya was more than 70%, according to the independent Kurdish Institute for Elections. Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslim, make up about 18% of Iraq’s population. They could emerge as a key bloc in the assembly if they capture a projected 65 to 70 seats and ally themselves with the Shiite Muslim majority.
“This means the Kurds get a loud voice in the new Iraq,” Kurdish police officer Abdullah Sabir Othman said.
The Kurds entered the election with more experience in democracy than Iraq’s Arabs. Dominated by Arab regimes for decades, Iraqi Kurds won a degree of autonomy in 1991 when the U.S. declared a “no-fly” zone to protect the north from Baghdad’s armies. This recent history has emboldened Kurds to increase their stake in the new Iraq by demanding to hold the presidency and run key ministries.
The Kurds’ desire to control Kirkuk and make it part of a semiautonomous north was evident across muddy villages where Kurds expelled by Hussein were permitted to vote in local elections. An estimated 70,000 internally displaced Kurds were expected to cast ballots, potentially giving the group a political edge over the city’s Arabs, Turkmen and Christian Assyrians. This ethnic mixture has made U.S. officials concerned about the possibility of civil war.
Political parties in Kirkuk estimated that about 90% of Kurds in the province came out to vote. Shiite turnout was about 40%, and the participation of Sunni Arabs, the group Hussein imported to the region to replace the Kurds he forced out, was roughly 25%. The Sunni Arabs had threatened to boycott the election, but their low turnout was mainly attributed to fears of terrorist attacks.
“The Iraqi police arrested a lot of terrorists who wanted to agitate the situation. There has been no major violence,” said Khidir Hamdani, director of the Kirkuk National Center for Dialogue and Social Development.
Army Col. Lloyd Miles, the U.S. commander in charge of operations in Kirkuk, said of the election: “My concern is if the Kurds win more seats in the city and the political equation gets out of balance. Right now, there’s a creative tension between the ethnic parties. My concern is how the parties will handle the long-term political changes.”
In this village fringed by minefields and cinderblock homes that were once barracks for Hussein’s army, children played soccer and parents cast ballots in green tents. They emerged with indelible ink on their fingers and defiant smiles on their faces. Some shed tears; others waved to the Iraqi and U.S. troops patrolling the hills.
“We’ve spilled a lot of blood over Kirkuk for years. That’s why this election is important to us,” said Nawzad Ali Faraj, who said he was forced from the city in 1988. “Two of my children died at the hands of Saddam’s forces and police. I vote because I want Kirkuk back, and I will return when the election is over.”
Special correspondent Ali Windawi contributed to this report.