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Arab-Kurd Conflict Deepens In Mosul

NPR - By Quil Lawrence

All Things Considered, May 8, 2009 · American troops are scheduled to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of June. But U.S. commanders have expressed concern about security in Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, where ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds run high. Shootings and bombings still occur almost daily.

Elections in Mosul in January did not calm the situation. The new Arab-dominated provincial government in Mosul declined to give Kurdish representatives seats on the cabinet, increasing rancor between the rival groups that threatens to spread across the north of Iraq.

Arabs Assert Control

Many of Iraq's military commanders during Saddam Hussein's regime came from Mosul. After the American invasion, al-Qaida and Sunni Arab insurgents made Mosul their haven, and Sunni Arabs shunned elections there in 2005.

But in January, an Arab nationalist coalition called al-Hadba won elections in the province of 2.6 million people. The previous ruling coalition, dominated by Kurds, came in second. Despite the split, al-Hadba announced that it would not give the Kurds any cabinet positions in the new government.

Sheik Abdullah Ajil al-Yawar, leader of al-Hadba's largest faction, says the Kurds need to respect Iraqi law and respect that voters gave al-Hadba the majority. He lives outside Mosul in a palatial estate, guarded by tribal fighters in bulletproof cars.

The Kurdish party won only one-third of the votes, and al-Yawar defends the decision to shut Kurds out of the government.

"How many states in the United States did not vote for Obama?" he asks. Can people who voted for John McCain say, "We will not listen to Obama because we did not elect him?"

Kurds Pull Out Of Provincial Government

But winner-takes-all politics have not gone over well. The 12 elected members of the Kurdish coalition walked out of the 37-member council. When al-Hadba still didn't budge, they went further.

The mayors from several Kurdish-majority districts around Mosul gathered April 20 to announce that they will no longer participate in the provincial government — effectively, they seceded.

Anti-Kurdish violence also has prompted most of those mayors to stay away from Mosul. The mayors have a stronger relationship with the neighboring Kurdistan autonomous region in northern Iraq, which would like to annex their territory. The Iraqi constitution provides for a referendum on such disputed territories, but politics in the Mosul region would make such a referendum difficult, if not impossible.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki recently appealed for inclusion of Kurds alongside Arabs in the provincial government. The new al-Hadba governor says talks with the Kurds have been postponed indefinitely.

Kurds' Painful Memories Of Mosul

A group of Kurdish teenagers plays soccer every afternoon in Shaykhan, one of the towns north of Mosul whose leaders decided to withdraw from the provincial government.

The young men here say they feel free and safe in Kurdistan. They may have been swayed by the newly built, fenced-in soccer field with artificial turf, which, along with all the other services in town, came from the Kurdistan regional government.

For people in these towns, Mosul brings back painful memories of life in the Saddam era, says Khasro Goran, leader of the Kurdish parties in Mosul.

"We have very bad history with the former governors. They always excluded Kurds from everything. It was unable for Kurds to own a house in this city. They kicked out Kurds from a lot of districts and brought others, especially Arabs, to these areas. They don't want these things [to] be repeated again," he says.

Goran himself is not relaxed in Mosul; his own guards are visibly nervous as they move around the city, passing Arab-controlled police checkpoints. When Goran's Kurdish party list won the elections here last time, they put Arabs in top positions, he says, because they knew Arabs were the real majority.

Now, the Arab-led provincial government must include some Kurds, Goran says.

"When we are not there, who will solve the problem? By force? This is the only way that they can solve the problems," he says.

Kurd-Arab Conflict Continues

But Goran doubts the two sides will find peace in Mosul. He says tens of thousands of Kurds have already fled the city. Goran thinks the only solution is the referendum stipulated in the Iraqi constitution that will allow the disputed towns to join the Kurdish region.

Al-Yawar, al-Hadba's leader, disagrees. He says none of the people on the Kurdish list are fit for the government in Mosul. He says their true allegiance is to the Kurdish region.

"There is no future if they keep pushing, 'This land for me, this land for me.' It is not a piece of cake. All Iraq for all the Iraqis, not for the Arab or Shiite or Sunni or Kurd or Turkoman," he says, referring to Iraq's major ethnic and sectarian groups.


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