Kurdish-Arab tensions continue to grow in northern Iraq

April 20, 2009 

BAGHDAD — In another sign of the growing tension between Iraqi Kurds and Arabs, a Kurdish political coalition in one northern province is boycotting provincial council meetings until the main Arab party there cedes council leadership positions.

Iraqis in all but four of the country's 18 provinces went to the polls in January to elect new provincial councils, which are similar to American state legislatures. The new councils held their first meetings this week.

In the northern province of Nineveh, however, where Sunni Muslim Kurds and Sunni Arabs are competing for power and territory, the Kurdish coalition, the Nineveh Fraternal List, walked out of the council's inaugural meeting.

Kurds had been in the majority on the council until the January elections, but then the main Arab party, al Hadbaa, won slightly more than half the seats, and the Kurds fewer than a third. The Kurds vowed not to return until the Arabs hand over two of the council's top three leadership positions.

"We have the second-most seats and deserve to occupy some of the executive offices," said Darman Khatari, a Fraternal List spokesman.

Members of al Hadbaa, a secular and mostly Sunni Arab nationalist party, call the Kurds' demands unreasonable, especially given the council's makeup.

Local officials in at least one predominantly Kurdish city, Sinjar in northwestern Iraq, have announced that they're cutting contact with the provincial council until the Fraternal List's demands are met.

"The people of Sinjar demonstrated yesterday in protest against the exclusion of Kurds from the administration of (Nineveh)," Dekheel Qasim Hassoun, mayor of the mostly Kurdish city, said Monday. " . . . we have decided not to acknowledge or deal with the new governor."

Hashim al Tael, a Sunni Arab national lawmaker from Nineveh, said the disagreements are troubling, especially because they emerged so early.

"This is just the beginning," he said. "We may witness much more."

Tensions between Kurds and Arabs aren't new in Nineveh. But they're rising fast, and U.S. officials are worried that they could quickly explode into large-scale violence.

In many ways, the Kurd-Arab problem may be the biggest threat to Iraq's long-term stability. Leaders on both sides have suggested that they'd resort to arms to protect their interests in disputed areas.

Attention has focused on the Arab-Kurdish dispute over Kirkuk, an oil-rich city just south of Kurdistan where Kurds are fighting to reassert control after Saddam Hussein forced them out and Sunni Arabs took over.

However, Nineveh and its capital city of Mosul have remained far more violent than much of Iraq has. U.S. military commanders have said they'll keep troops there past a scheduled June 30 withdrawal date if Iraq's government agrees.

The province's northern and western borders touch Kurdistan, Iraq's semi-independent northern region, where Kurdish leaders have been struggling to gain greater autonomy from Iraq's Shiite-led central government.

Though Sunni Arabs make up the majority of Nineveh's population, Kurds are a large minority. Both Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh have been competing for the loyalty of the area's other minorities, which include Christians, Shabaks and Yazidis.

Despite the Arab majority, Kurds held most of the seats on Nineveh's provincial council before January's elections — largely because many Sunni Arabs boycotted the last provincial elections in 2005.

While in control, Kurdish leaders moved to expand their reach in Nineveh over the past three years.

Today, Kurdish security forces, known as the Peshmerga, patrol many areas of the province. In hundreds of schools, children learn Kurdish curricula from teachers funded by the Kurdish Regional Government, despite the fact that the province is constitutionally under the control of Iraq's central government.

In January's elections, al Hadbaa candidates ran on a pledge to push out Peshmerga forces and reverse the Kurdish expansion into Nineveh.

Voters apparently liked what they heard, though Kurds fared better than many had expected given their numbers in the province.

Al Hadbaa won 19 of 37 seats. The Fraternal List took 12. The mostly Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party won three. Under required quotas, Christian, Shabak and Yazidi candidates were given one seat each.

During the new council's first meeting on Sunday, members voted to select five top leaders: a provincial governor, his two deputies, a council speaker and his deputy.

All but one of the positions went to al Hadbaa. An independent Turkoman, Hasen Mahmoud Ali, was selected as the governor's second deputy, but Fraternal List members want the selections cancelled and two of the top three positions given to Kurds.

In an interview broadcast on an Iraqi radio station Monday, Atheel al Najafi, the head of al Hadbaa and Nineveh's new governor, said the Fraternal List's requests are unreasonable.

He said he believes that coalition leaders will quickly realize that they lack the numbers to make such demands and give them up.

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