Flashpoint: Kirkuk, Or Why Mosul Isn’t The Real Problem

by Tommy Brown

A little backstory from the New York Time’s article on the Mosul elections the day before they took place:

“This is our fate,” Mohammed Shakir, 67, the top candidate running for the local council with the Iraqi Islamic Party, said post-boom a few days before the provincial elections here. “There is no politics when there is chaos and car bombing.”

Around a largely quiet Iraq, the elections on Saturday — considered crucial as the first widely contested balloting since the American invasion in 2003 — will take place in something like normality.

But in Mosul, the chief city in the north, long torn between Arabs and Kurds, the violence has not ended. A civilian died in this car bombing. A day later a bomb exploded down the street from the Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters, killing four Iraqi soldiers.

This is the test of the provincial elections in Mosul, a last bastion of the Sunni and jihadi insurgency: whether a political system that more closely reflects local ethnic and sectarian splits will be a first step toward stability. The issue is the same in places around Iraq where calm is still fragile: whether democracy can trump violence.

There are some encouraging signs here in Mosul, even if many people fear the elections are simply another means for Arabs and Kurds to continue their bloody struggle over land, oil and sovereignty. Certainly there is no progress on the more threatening issue of Kirkuk, a city to the southeast so full of oil and ethnic tension that elections there were postponed.

The city of Mosul, located in northern Iraq on the border of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is a sort of Cold War Berlin on the Tigris, with the river acting as the wall between a mostly Arab west bank and a mostly Kurdish east bank.  After their forced eviction from al Anbar and the rest of the Sunni Triangle last year, the nationalist and jihadi insurgents have alit upon Mosul as a potential flashpoint in the ongoing Iraqi sectarian drama. And it had been working too, because due to the Sunni boycott of the 2005 provincial elections, the Kurds, who comprise about a third of the population, controlled more than two-thirds of the local legislature and thus the city. This led to lots of grumbling and resentment from the local Arabs, who mostly view Kurds as foreigners.

The results of the elections have changed the dynamics considerably. From the Associated Press article:

Furthermore, Sunni Arabs appear to have regained power at the expense of the Kurds in the volatile Mosul area, the last remaining battlefield between U.S. troops and Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida in Iraq.

That could help take the steam out of the Sunni insurgency there if the Sunni community in Mosul feels it has a stake in the local government.

It could also sharpen tensions between the government and the powerful Kurdish parties that are already estranged from the national leadership in Baghdad.

Much will depend on the margin of victory in each of the 14 provinces where voting was held. A low turnout of 51 percent nationwide also signaled a high level of apathy and frustration among Iraqis that politicians had failed them.

If the margins prove narrow, winners and second-place finishers could end up with the same number of council seats. A second-place finisher could strike enough deals with minor parties to control the local government, even without winning the biggest share of the votes.

That could leave the religious parties — which have close ties to Iraqi security services — with enough power to recoup in time for national parliamentary elections by the end of the year.

The dealmaking and political conniving that will play out in the coming weeks could threaten what the U.S. wants most out of the election — stability.

While the Mosul outcome seems on its face to be a good thing, “stability” being the Road Runner America’s Wile E. Coyote has been chasing for five-plus years, most likely it will exacerbate tensions throughout the city. The jihadists are pissed because they don’t want representative democracy beyond “one man, one vote, one time.” The Sunni fundamentalists are pissed because it was the secular nationalists that won most of the votes. The secular Sunnis are pissed because of the intimidation from the Islamist parties (in the Sunni Triangle, the Sons of Iraq are threatening war if the fundamentalists come out on top in the elections) and the Kurds’ possessive attitude towards the whole region. The Kurds are pissed because they consider Mosul to be a traditionally Kurdish city “Arabized” by Saddam Hussein and want it to be part of Kurdistan. Despite the nonstop happytalk these last few days about the elections, this is merely the reshuffling of the pieces on the board before the next sectarian clash.

The worst part of the whole thing is, the Mosul vote is just the dress rehearsal for the real electoral problem in the region, and the biggest threat to the stability of northern Iraq: Kirkuk. To the Kurds, it is their Jerusalem; during the Anfal, Hussein’s genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the Eighties, Kurds were given two choices: Leave the city and travel north into the mountains, or die. Large parts of the city were razed to the ground and tens of thousands of Shi’ites from the south were settled there to Arabize the population. Kirkuk was the rallying cry for Kurdish independence all through the pre-war years, the symbol of what they had lost under the Ba’athist government. The original pre-2003 Kurdish constitution named Kirkuk as the capital of Kurdistan, even though it was not under their control.

Since the regime collapsed under the weight of American tanks in 2003, it has been the most explosive issue between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq. Despite numerous calls for a referendum to determine the status of the city, the vast oil wealth located there has left the central government stalled, divided and unwilling to sanction it. No matter what happens, one side or the other is going to be seriously unhappy, which is why in our post-election euphoria we have decided to ignore the fact that the Kirkuk vote has been delayed numerous times because of the looming threat of sectarian violence. And with the Sunnis (specifically the secular nationalists who used to run the government that attempted to exterminate the Kurdish people) retaking power in northern Iraq, the situation is only going to become more and more unstable the longer the referendum is held off. America ignores this at its own risk.<-->

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