As uncertainty grows in Iraq over the feasibility of holding elections, Kurds in the North of the country are facing their own concerns over representation…
In the Kurdish capital, Arbil, traffic wardens issue parking tickets, foreign businessmen relax in newly built hotels and gunfire is seldom heard.
But while security conditions are favourable here, Kurds are reluctant to press ahead with polling while the rest of Iraq is in turmoil. There is unease that the US-appointed government is rushing towards elections.
“If everybody wanted elections to go ahead in our area there would be no problems and everything would happen normally,” said Ahmed Abdulwahid, a senior member of the Kurdish parliament in Arbil.
“We have all the means to hold an election properly, but we want it to happen everywhere at the same time and there are some important issues we want to see resolved first.”
Kurdish factions have been running their own affairs ever since the first Gulf war in 1991 forced Iraqi forces to pull out of the area, holding their own elections in 1992 and building up an army of around 70,000 soldiers known as “peshmerga”.
The peshmerga (meaning “those ready to die”) fought alongside US forces during the 2003 invasion. Afterwards they were transformed into the local security forces and have prevented violence spilling into the Kurdish territory.
But Kurds face an uncertain future. Many in Arbil fear an Arab-dominated government in Baghdad will curtail the freedoms they achieved after decades of oppression.
Under Saddam’s regime, more than 100,000 Kurds were killed or taken away by Iraqi security forces and never seen again. The memory of Iraqi planes dropping gas bombs on Kurdish villages makes Kurds distrustful of ceding authority to Baghdad.
“We want a central government and stability for all Iraq, but Kurds must have a significant role so that we are protected,” said 29-year-old Farouq Abdulgheni, seated behind the counter of a busy grocery store.
In a deal struck in Baghdad on March 18, 2003, Kurds ensured their right to federal autonomy was enshrined in the new constitution of Iraq. Kurdish leaders insisted on retaining a degree of control over their own territory.
Even this resolution was regarded as a compromise and many Kurds see federalism as simply a step towards their dream of creating an independent state, but central to this plan is the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk within the Kurdish zone.
Kurds claim the city’s population was predominantly Kurdish before Saddam’s “Arabisation” campaign – deporting the Kurds and replacing them with Arabs from the country’s south – to change the city’s demographic structure, thus safeguarding his control of Iraq’s largest oilfields.
But following the US-led invasion, more than 100,000 Kurds returned to Kirkuk and are now living in refugee camps in and around the city, creating friction with Kirkuk’s large Arab and Turkomen communities.
Kurdish politicians are determined that Arabisation should be reversed and Kurdish refugees allowed to vote in the upcoming elections to determine the city’s status, yet the issue remains unresolved.
“Pre-existing questions such as the ‘normalisation’ of Kirkuk have not been addressed, so it is not logical for this election to go ahead at the appointed time,” said parliamentarian Abdulwahid. Control of Kirkuk is vital to Kurdish hopes of self-determination and Kurdish leaders have frequently stated they won’t compromise on this.
In the marketplaces and cafés of downtown Arbil, conversations are dominated by the issue. “Kurds were kicked out of Kirkuk and the Arabs were brought in by Saddam,” said Kurdish labourer Shawkat Denha, 42, sipping a glass of black tea.
“Those Kurdish refugees are originally from Kirkuk so they must be allowed to vote there … the authorities will have to postpone things and examine this problem.”
Watching the violence in the rest of Iraq, many Kurds are sceptical about the chances of holding elections outside the Kurdish zone – most acknowledge that a delay could work in their favour.
“Holding elections on time would be a blow to those trying to destabilise Iraq,” said Abdulwahid.
“But we are expecting everything to be delayed at the last minute.”