For decades, Arab soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas battled by gun, by mortar, by rocket. Now, elections are the latest weapon in the struggle for land and power in Iraq’s north.
The ballot box has become a battleground in Nineveh province, a high-stakes combat zone where Kurds and Arabs will face off over the future shape of the country -- and confront each other over the past. The outcome could set the stage for another round of violence, which both sides insist that they do not want.
“In the last few years, almost 2,000 Kurds have been killed in Mosul,” Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani told The Times this month. “We have not responded in the same manner and we have not reacted in any act of vengeance; but of course everything will have its limits.”
The rival ethnicities are grappling with the legacy of Saddam Hussein’s policy of displacing Kurds to create an Arab majority here. Whereas the Kurds believe they are correcting a historical wrong, Arabs see humiliation. They accuse the Kurds of harassment, arbitrary arrests and torture in the run-up to the election Saturday.
How the struggle plays out here, where Arabs clearly outnumber Kurds, will go a long way toward determining the outcome in other disputed territories, such as the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, where no side has such an outright majority.
“If these problems are not solved, there will be some extremism here in [Nineveh], on the Kurdish side and Arab side,” Deputy Gov. Kharso Goran warned, sitting in his riverside office in the provincial capital, Mosul, flanked by the flags of Iraq, Kurdistan and his Kurdistan Democratic Party.
The Kurds have governed their own region, Kurdistan, since 1991 and have pushed to expand the area to include the northern and eastern belt around Mosul and the Sinjar region of western Nineveh. That has exacerbated Kurdish-Arab tensions, which U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently labeled one of the emerging challenges of the year.
“The people of these areas do not want to belong to Kurdistan,” said Sheik Abdullah Humaidi Yawar, a senior leader in Hadba, a Sunni Arab nationalist movement. Yawar is considered the front-runner in the Nineveh election.
“They want to stay included in Nineveh,” he said. “The Kurdish parties have proven to the people for the last five years that they are racist like the former regime.”
The Sunni Arabs are playing catch-up after their boycott of U.S.-sponsored elections in 2005 handed the Kurds control of Nineveh. The Kurds used the last four years to cement their grip on the disputed areas in northern Nineveh bordering Kurdistan, with a sizable presence of Kurdish border guards, intelligence officers and Kurdish-dominated Iraqi army units.
The Kurds had hoped to formalize the new reality in a constitutionally mandated referendum, designated to settle the fate of similarly contested areas across Iraq, including Kirkuk. But the date for the referendum expired a year ago, and with it the Kurds’ opportunity to quickly seize what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Now both Baghdad and local Arabs appear intent on beating back the Kurds, through a mix of intimidation, negotiation and show of force.
“When we have the ability to protect these areas, we will ask Kurdistan to leave them,” said Yahya Abdul Majoud of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is considered the less extreme Sunni faction in the north. “If they agree or not, it’s not the Kurds’ choice,” he said, adding that the Iraqi army should replace Kurdish units in Nineveh in six months to a year.
Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has already put his weight behind Nineveh’s Arabs. He has started trying to purge the two Iraqi army divisions in Nineveh of Kurdish officers, who have been accused of working for Kurdish ambitions, Kurdish officials say.
Since the summer, Nineveh’s security command, which reports to Maliki, has twice threatened to forcibly evict Goran from his Kurdistan Democratic Party offices in east Mosul.
The Kurdish political parties are sure to not go quietly. They warn that an aggressive campaign to dislodge them from the disputed territories and marginalize them in Nineveh politics has the potential to spark serious confrontations. If Baghdad backs the hard-line Arab nationalists, Goran said, “there will be a problem between Kurdistan and the central government.”
Goran has a visceral dislike of Hadba, which exemplifies the new nationalist wave. He accuses the movement of having ties to the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and Hussein’s Baath Party. Hadba is headed by Atheel Najafi, scion of an old Mosul family, famed breeders of Arabian horses who once sold and raced horses with Hussein’s sons Uday and Qusai.
Najafi and his colleagues regularly accuse Kurdish army units of torturing detainees and hint that the Kurdistan Democratic Party has plotted at least one assassination attempt against a Hadba candidate. Najafi vows to force Kurdish troops to withdraw from the disputed territories.
“When we have strong authority and power in Mosul, the Kurds will change their stance,” Najafi said. He pledges to bar Kurdistan’s two main parties from any leadership positions in Mosul.
Najafi describes the dispute as the latest mutation of an old conflict between the Kurdish parties and the central government.
“This struggle has existed dozens of years,” Najafi told The Times.
A U.S. official has called Hadba’s rhetoric “dangerous” and said Goran was alarmed with good reason. But the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, also accused the Kurds of harassing opponents.
“Some of it is stick, intimidation, threat, a little bit of good old-fashioned thuggery,” the official said, referring to the Kurdish practices of detaining rivals.
Arabs in Zimar, a district west of Mosul, complain that the Kurdish authorities treat them as second-class citizens and have harassed candidates and threatened them over the vote. Abu Noor, a laborer, remembers when the Kurds entered Zimar after the U.S. invasion to help suppress a revolt.
Kurdish soldiers and U.S. troops knocked on his door one night and detained him and his brother. They told them that they would be held for one or two hours. After 22 days, Abu Noor was released, but his brother remained in jail, mainly in Kurdistan, for almost four years.
The daily routine in Zimar eats away at Abu Noor. As an Arab, he has a special badge to enter the district, to be allowed through checkpoints. But at night, he can’t move because of a curfew imposed by the security forces. “I don’t know why they do these things,” he said. “This is a psychological warfare.”
He said his relationship with the Kurds has always been good. He grew up alongside them. His sister married a Kurd and moved with him to Kurdistan. He still visits them regularly, but he says the trip, with its four checkpoints, is an exercise in humiliation.
“They do a lot of things. The simplest thing they’ve done to me is call me a terrorist when they know I’m an Arab,” he said, adding that he ignores the insults and waits for the family member or phone call that will allow him to pass.
“What can I do?” he said.
For their part, the Kurds, still scarred by Hussein’s military campaigns, worry that the loss of control of northern Nineveh province will put them in danger. They are terrified by Hadba’s rhetoric.
In the Shaikhan district in the northern Nineveh plains, Nurman Farhan Othman, 60, a Kurd and follower of the ancient Yazidi sect, sits cross-legged on a couch and considers a life defined by war. His father tapped him when he was 13 to fight against Baghdad. “Thirteen is the most active age for a young man,” he said.
If the early days of war were heroic, eventually the rebellion against Baghdad cost him a great deal.
The hard times started in 1975, when Iran, which had been supplying weapons to the Kurds, struck a deal with Baghdad to stop arming them. The Iraqi army began to crush the Kurdish uprising, and its leaders ordered people to flee or surrender.
Othman remembers walking out from the mountains around the town of Rawanduz, where he had fought for months in the snow, pounding Iraqi army camps with artillery. He handed in his weapons and returned to his home district of Shaikhan, only to be expelled.
His exile ended in 1995, when the government allowed him to move back to Shaikhan. Othman’s home and farm had been razed to build government housing for Arab families, but the state forbade Kurds from buying property. He says he lived in a rental without electricity or water, existing on limited food.
The U.S. invasion in 2003 allowed him to start rebuilding his life. Out from under the rule Hussein, Othman bought land, and two years ago he finished building a home, decorated with a map of Kurdistan.
He worries now that the bad times could return. He sees the rise of the Arab parties in Nineveh as shades of the past when Baghdad denied them their rights.
Once again, he said, “we fear that we will be betrayed.”