Voting in Iraq

Stephen DeAngelis

January 29, 2009

As the date for elections approaches in Iraq, ethnic tensions are once again flaring in the north. While most of the fighting in the south is between Sunnis and Shi’as, tension in the north is between Kurds and Arabs. The situation is most tense along the border of the Kurdish autonomous region [“In Iraq’s North, Ethnic Strife Flares as Vote Draws Closer,” by Ernesto Londoño, Washington Post, 28 January 2009]. Londoño reports:

“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 [January 31st], 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 issue isn’t just about ethnic identity, it’s also about money (mostly in the form of oil), about security (ensuring that past atrocities never again occur), and about religion (there is more tolerance in the Kurdish region of Iraq than elsewhere).

“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. … 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.”

The KRG’s desire to create a buffer zone between the Kurdish autonomous region and the rest of Iraq is understandable considering the treatment Kurds received under Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. Forensic archaeologists have uncovered evidence of the genocidal campaign that Hussein mounted against the Kurds [“Witness to Genocide,” by Heath Pringle, Archaeology, January/February 2009]. Mass graves concealing the bodies of men, women, and children (some still babes in arms) have been documented. During the genocide, over 100,000 Kurds disappeared and 2,600 villages were destroyed. The killings were carried out in a brutal and calculated way. Pringle writes:

“In May 1988, a prison guard checked Taymour Abdullah Ahmad’s name off a list and directed him to a bus idling in the Popular Army camp in Topzawa, southwest of Kirkuk. The camp was one of Iraq’s grimmest prisons. During his month-long internment there, the 12-year-old Kurdish boy watched guards beating male prisoners senseless with lengths of coaxial cable. He had seen four children weaken and then die of starvation. He stood helplessly as a guard stripped his father to his undershorts and led him off to his death. So Taymour was not sorry to see the last of Topzawa. He did not know that the paper in the guard’s hand was an execution list. The buses idling in the prison courtyard looked like ambulances. But this, Taymour soon discovered, was a cruel illusion; inside, they were squalid mobile prisons. The boy, his mother, and two younger sisters were forced into a dark air compartment that reeked of urine and feces. There was no toilet, no food, no water, no way out. The only ventilation came from a small, mesh-covered opening. By the time the bus pulled out, 60 or so frightened passengers–mainly Kurdish women and their young children–were crushed together in the stifling heat. After more than 12 hours of travel, the bus bumped to a halt in the desert near the Saudi Arabian border. Taymour stepped into the cool night air and noticed at once that their bus, along with the 30 others in the convoy, had parked next to a large, shallow pit. Before he could take this in, however, a soldier pushed Taymour and his mother and sisters over the edge. Gunmen began firing. “When the first bullet hit me,” Taymour later recalled, “I ran to a soldier and grabbed his hand.” He had seen tears in the man’s eyes, and instinctively reached toward him, hoping he would pull him out. But an officer watching nearby issued a command in Arabic, and the soldier shot Taymour. This time the boy fell to the ground, wounded in the left shoulder and lower back. He played dead until the gunmen moved away, then crawled out of the open grave and set off into the darkness. Several hours later, he reached a camp of Bedouins who took pity on him, hiding him in their tents. Taymour told this story in 1992 to Human Rights Watch, which was investigating the treatment of Kurds in Iraq.”

At one site alone, ten massive burial pits, all oriented along the same north-south axis, were discovered. The forensic team claims there were “graves as far as the eye can see.” In one of the mass graves, “they discovered that eight adult victims had died with infants or small children in their arms.” Adults had on average been shot nine times while children had been shot on average four times. These mass killings were the backdrop against which the Kurdish autonomous region was established. The fresh memories of lost relatives have motivated Kurdish leaders to try and establish as large a safety zone for their people as they can. Londoño continues:

“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. ‘We waited from morning until noon,’ Issou said. But the ballots never came. Later, Issou said, town leaders discovered that ballot boxes earmarked for Qaraqosh had been taken to a neighboring town and stuffed with ballots marked for Kurdish candidates. ‘So much for freedom and democracy,’ he said, laughing. Nineveh has become Iraq’s most restive province. As violence has ebbed across the country in recent months, the U.S. military has shifted troops and resources to Mosul, now among the country’s most dangerous cities. Governance of the province, by all accounts, has been disastrous. The sitting provincial council does not dispute that, but it blames the central government in Baghdad for withholding its budgeted funds and otherwise thwarting the authority of local leaders.”

For its part, the central Iraqi government is trying desperately to forge a single nation out of the ruins of war. A goal supported by the United States. As a result, the central government has concerns about the KRG’s autonomy and its expansionist plans.

“Much of Mosul remains in shambles. Millions of dollars that the central government sent to the province last year to fund reconstruction projects have vanished. Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, including many Christian families who fled the city last fall amid a string of killings. Kurdish leaders say Sunni insurgents were behind the slayings. Some Arab politicians have blamed the Kurds, suggesting that the campaign was designed to undermine confidence in the central government’s security forces. Arab parties have accused Kurdish officials and their proxies of intimidating and detaining their candidates, and expressed concern that Kurdish soldiers will keep voters from polling sites … in areas where Kurds are expected to do poorly. The Kurds reject those accusations and call their opponents political novices who have ties to the insurgency. U.S. and Iraqi officials say they fear that the perception of unfair elections on the part of either side, or both, could trigger a fresh wave of violence. On 27 January, a bomb detonated near an office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Mosul, killing three policemen. It was unclear whether the office was the intended target.”

The high emotions and increased tensions on both sides are understandable. One side fears a return to persecution while the other fears a future of retribution. Had the area prospered over the past few years there would be less fear and more hope. Unfortunately, fear and poverty rules the day.

“Even if the political stalemate doesn’t turn violent, a protracted fight over disputed areas is likely to create breathing room for insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has clung onto Mosul. ‘Nineveh is a place where all the fault lines of Iraq meet,’ a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said. Abdullah Humedi Ajeel al-Yawer, a wealthy, influential tribal leader who is one of the founders of the largest opposition party, al-Hadba-a, says he is eager to keep the fight in the political arena. But in a province with only a short, troubled history of democracy and a mix of politically malleable armed forces, his faith in the power of the ballot box is limited. … ‘I personally work against violence,’ Humedi said recently, sipping espresso in the living room of his palatial fortress near the Syrian border. ‘I try to keep my people out of the violence. But to protect ourselves? We will do anything to protect ourselves and our democracy. All options are on the table.’ Kurdish candidates call such rhetoric dangerous — but not surprising from leaders they say have checkered pasts.”

As noted earlier, ethnic survival is not the only issue keeping tensions high. Oil riches are also a motivating factor.

“The fight for votes is complicated by the vast oil reserves in the disputed region and competing ancestral claims to them by Arabs and Kurds, who in recent decades have been pushed in and out of the area, often by force. ‘The debate is quite legitimate,’ the senior U.S. official said. ‘And it’s a debate that is likely to go on for years, even in a prosperous Iraq. The line has never really been drawn. It’s going to be very difficult to determine the boundary in this dispute because the population has shifted so many times and so dramatically.'”

Part of that “population shift” involved the “Arabification” of formerly Kurdish areas and Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaign, which, according to Pringle, he dubbed “Anfal–The Spoils of War–the title of the eighth chapter of the Koran, which records revelations received by Muhammad after his first victorious battle over non-believers. By characterizing the Kurds as infidels, Iraqi officials hoped to rouse support in the Muslim world for their genocidal campaign.” The wounds of past remain fresh in Kurdish memories and the spoils of the future are tantalizingly within reach of both Kurds and Arabs. These two factors make the situation along border of the Kurdish autonomous extremely dangerous. Conflict, however, is not going to solve it. In an interview broadcast on al-Arabiya televison earlier this week, President Obama said it was his job “to communicate to the Muslim world that the Americans are not your enemy” [“On Arab TV Network, Obama Urges Dialogue,” by Alan Cowell, New York Times, 28 January 2009]. Although the President’s focus was on the situation in Gaza, one of his first challenges may be to deal with the outcome of the election in Iraq. The U.S. government supports a strong Iraqi government, but it also appreciates the strong ties it has with the Kurdish community. Iraq will never be on the full road to prosperity until men of good will on both sides sit down, put the past behind them, and focus on a better future for all of Iraq’s citizens — despite their ethnicity or religious beliefs.