January 29, 2009 / 6:51 AM / 11 years ago

Iraqis to vote in al Qaeda's last stronghold

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - An election in two days in Iraq’s most violent province, where al Qaeda and other insurgents are making a last stand, could bring Sunni Arabs back into power and ease resentment that has fueled the bloodshed.

U.S soldiers from the 1-8 Infantry Battalion stand guard in front of provincial election campaign posters in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, January 29, 2009. REUTERS/Erik de Castro

Iraqis vote on Saturday for the first time since 2005 in a provincial poll that is likely to redraw the political map almost six years after the U.S-led invasion triggered sectarian violence that killed tens of thousands.

The stakes are high in Nineveh in the north, an ancient battleground between rival ethnic and religious groups, which is majority Sunni Arab but some of which Kurds claim as their own.

Sunni Arabs boycotted the last provincial polls in 2005, leaving them with only 10 out of Nineveh’s 41 council seats, despite making up 60 percent of the population. Kurds control 30 seats, despite being just a quarter of the population.

The imbalance has helped feed an insurgency mounted mostly by Sunnis, who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein. They are expected to turn out in large numbers to elect the 37 council seats being contested this time.

“The (Sunnis) of Nineveh will take part because they see the problems that ensued from not taking part last time,” Mohammed Shakir, head of the local arm of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said.

Tensions are rising between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq just as the sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims eases.

While much of the country enjoys its best security in years, Nineveh is struggling to shake off a determined insurgency.

On Thursday, a Sunni candidate in the provincial capital Mosul, Hazem Salem Ahmed, was gunned down in front of his home, at least the second candidate to be killed there.

Al Qaeda regrouped in Nineveh in 2007 after being driven out of former strongholds in Baghdad and western Iraq.

“We’re expecting that al Qaeda will try to create violence to cause disruption,” said Major Karl Neal, head of U.S. military intelligence for Nineveh. “Mosul is al Qaeda’s last stand.”

SUICICE BOMBERS MAY ATTACK

The streets of Mosul, a ruined city home to two-thirds of Nineveh’s 2.6 million inhabitants, are lined with rubble and flanked by bombed-out or half-finished buildings.

Power comes on four hours a day. Raw sewage spews into the Tigris river. On one street, children played by a flock of sheep grazing on a festering pile of trash.

“I hope the elected will take care of us and not just make empty promises,” said Satar Ibrahem al-Dabbagh, who runs Mosul’s al-Salaam hospital. “We need medicines, equipment, vaccines.”

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, speaking to local officials and tribal leaders on a visit to Mosul, blamed the poor state of Mosul’s services on the relentless violence and called for wide participation in Saturday’s vote to bring citizens together.

“We will send a message to those who think Iraq is divided along ... ethnic and sectarian lines,” he said.

Some in Nineveh see past such differences. “I’m from Kurdistan and I have never felt unwelcome here,” said Omar Salam, a young soldier.

U.S. officials say a dozen other groups, including secular nationalists or remnants of Saddam’s Baath party, are fighting in Nineveh in addition to al Qaeda.

Neal said they may stay quiet so as not be seen to be thwarting a return of Sunni Arabs to power in Nineveh.

One party hoping for success is al Hadba, a new bloc that includes former Baathists. Atheel al-Nujaifi, the party’s head, himself once a Baathist, is campaigning against the U.S. occupation but also against violence. He is likely to do well.

Nujaifi accuses Kurdish Peshmerga fighters of intimidation.

Slideshow (6 Images)

“When the Kurds realize they are losing power, they are not going to be reasonable. They will want to hold on,” he said.

Others in Mosul are disturbed by such rhetoric.

“He talks of ridding Mosul of Kurds. That would be ethnic cleansing,” said Mosul Mayor Abdul Aziz al-Aaraji, part of the Shabak minority. “If he wins, he’ll have to work with Kurds.”

Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Wisam Mohammed; Editing by Michael Christie and Missy Ryan

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