Mosul, Iraq. The thud of the car bomb was familiar, if in this case close, rattling the windows and puffing out the drapes.
“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 USinvasion 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. One 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 represents local ethnic and sectarian splits will be a first step toward stability. The issue is the same in volatile places around Iraq: whether democracy can trump violence.
There are some encouraging signs here in Mosul, even if many 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.
But politics are changing here. In the last provincial elections, in 2005, most Arabs boycotted. As a result Kurdish groups, who make up at most a third of the city, hold 31 out of 41 seats on the provincial council in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh Province. The provinces have broad local authority to spend and govern.
Now the council has 37 seats, and Arabs, represented by two main parties, are expected to win, and Kurds largely accept that — one reason, many here say, that the violence, while still much higher than in most of Iraq, has not flared more.
On Thursday night, however, a candidate who is an adviser on tribal affairs for Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki was assassinated outside his house in Mosul. But even if it is too dangerous for candidates to shake hands in the streets, where wild dogs rove over rubble and garbage, 55 voter registration stations survived the campaign unscathed.
“People think these elections will be different,” said Maj. Gen.Hassan Kareem Khidir, Iraqi army operations commander in Nineveh, who has much to gain from the calm. Outside his fortified office a plaque lists the names of 523 security officers killed since May. “The major factor in Nineveh is not security or military — it’s political,” he said.
But the full picture is more clouded and complex, a backdrop for the long-running tensions between Kurds and Arabs that many fear may intensify after the election.
One major struggle is local control, embodied in these elections and which the Kurds advocate, versus the strong central state that Saddam Hussein long used to keep in line Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other groups.
After the Kurds ruled the city for four years — a time of extreme violence, with the latest killings last fall forcing thousands of Christians to flee — Kurdish groups readily concede that Arabs should control the city itself.
“Of course the Arabs have the majority here,” said Kisro Goran, 48, the deputy governor, who despite his second-rank title is the most powerful politician in Mosul and is overseeing the campaign for the largely Kurdish grouping Brotherly Nineveh. “We will not collect more than what we are. We are only one-third so we won’t get more than that.”
But he is equally frank that their real goal is winning rural areas outside the city — places where Kurds say they have a majority and that, they argue, should ultimately belong to the nearby autonomous enclave of Kurdistan. The Kurds have long been frustrated by the failure of international promises for a census and referendum to settle Kurdish claims, particularly in Kirkuk.
So Goran said the elections would serve as their own census to further the Kurds’ agenda.
“We are looking not only to know our political size but our ethnic size,’’ he said. “How can we know the truth? By democratic means. We don’t want to force any identity on anyone. Voters will choose what identity they want.”
The New York Times