The United States once based alliances on national interest. No longer. Unable to convince its NATO partners to bring Georgia into the alliance, "This is our fate," Mohammed Shakir, 67, the top candidate running for the local council with the Iraqi Islamic Party, said post-boom a few days before the provincial elections here. "There is no politics when there is chaos and car bombing."

Around a largely quiet Iraq, the elections on Saturday – considered crucial as the first widely contested balloting since the American invasion in 2003 – will take place in something like normality.

But in Mosul, the chief city in the north, long torn between Arabs and Kurds, the violence has not ended. A civilian died in this car bombing. A day later a bomb exploded down the street from the Kurdish Democratic Party headquarters, killing four Iraqi soldiers.

This is the test of the provincial elections in Mosul, a last bastion of the Sunni and jihadi insurgency: whether a political system that more closely reflects local ethnic and sectarian splits will be a first step toward stability. The issue is the same in places around Iraq where calm is still fragile: whether democracy can trump violence.

There are some encouraging signs here in Mosul, even if many people fear the elections are simply another means for Arabs and Kurds to continue their bloody struggle over land, oil and sovereignty. Certainly there is no progress on the more threatening issue of Kirkuk, a city to the southeast so full of oil and ethnic tension that elections there were postponed.

But politics are changing here. In the last provincial elections, in 2005, most Arabs boycotted. As a result, Kurdish groups, who make up at most a third of the city, hold 31 out of 41 seats on the provincial council in Mosul and surrounding Nineveh Province. The provinces have broad local authority to spend and govern.

Now the council has 37 seats, and Arabs, represented by two main parties, are expected to win, and Kurds largely accept that – one reason, many here say, that the violence, while still much higher than in most of Iraq, has not flared more. On Thursday night, however, a candidate who is an adviser on tribal affairs to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki was assassinated outside his house in Mosul. But even if it is too dangerous for candidates to shake hands in the streets, where wild dogs rove over rubble and garbage, 55 voter registration stations survived the campaign unscathed.

"People think these elections will be different," said Maj. Gen. Hassan Kareem Khidir, commander of Iraqi Army operations in Nineveh, who has much to gain from the calm. Outside his fortified office a plaque lists the names of 523 security officers killed just since May. "The major factor in Nineveh is not security or military – it’s political," he said.

But the full picture is more clouded and complex, a backdrop for the long-running tensions between Kurds and Arabs that many fear may intensify after the elections.

One major struggle is local control, embodied in these elections and which the Kurds advocate, versus the strong central state that Saddam Hussein long used to keep in line Iraq’s Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other groups.

After the Kurds ruled the city for four years – a time of extreme violence, with the latest killings last fall forcing thousands of Christians to flee Mosul – Kurdish groups readily concede that Arabs should control the city itself.

"Of course the Arabs have the majority here," said Kisro Goran, 48, the deputy governor, who despite his second-rank title is the most powerful politician in Mosul and is overseeing the campaign for the largely Kurdish grouping Brotherly Nineveh. "We will not collect more than what we are. We are only one-third so we won’t get more than that."

But he is equally frank that their real goal is winning rural areas outside the city – places where Kurds say they have a majority and that, they argue, should ultimately belong to the nearby autonomous enclave of Kurdistan. The Kurds have long been frustrated by the failure of international promises for a census and referendum to settle Kurdish claims, particularly in Kirkuk.

So Mr. Goran said the elections would serve as their own census, he hoped, to further the Kurds’ agenda.

"We are looking not only to know our political size but our ethnic size," he said. "How can we know the truth? By democratic means. We don’t want to force any identity on anyone. Voters will choose what identity they want."

Talk like this infuriates Arabs, who accuse the Kurds of using the elections not for the unity of Iraq but its dissolution. The issues run from impossibly complex – should Yazidis, a non-Muslim Kurdish-speaking minority, count as Kurds? – to explosive.

Atheel al-Nujaifi, leader of the list al-Hudba, a largely Sunni Arab slate that seems set to win the most votes, said that Kurds were using the election to solidify control over areas around the Mosul dam, strategic for water supply and near an oil pipeline. In theory, Arab gains in this election would be a force against what they see as Kurdish expansion – another possible source of conflict. "In these areas they have militias," said Mr. Nujaifi, 51, a businessman who owns a satellite channel and breeds horses that were favored by Saddam Hussein’s sons. "I am worried the votes won’t be fair."

"We think the elections are for political parties," he added. "It’s not for nationalities to decide their final fate."

And thus these elections are studded with contradictions: On one side, the prospect for fairer representation and less violence in the city. Most parties, Arab and Kurdish alike, are pledging to work together in a possible coalition government after the elections (Mr. Goran, however, has ruled out working with the candidates on the slate from al-Hudba.) On the other side, there appears to be rising suspicion between Arabs and Kurds, worsened by the widening gap, in safety and prosperity, between Iraq proper and Kurdistan.

More and more, the roads out of Mosul feel like an international boundary, with checkpoints and virtual customs stops before the Kurdish cities of Dohuk and Erbil. While Mosul is battened down and tense, Kurdistan is safe and lively, full of construction, car dealerships and nice Turkish washing machines for sale. Arabs say that, despite their holding Iraqi passports, Kurdish pesh merga troops harass them and admit them only grudgingly.

"I went to Erbil the other day and they wouldn’t let me in without somebody guaranteeing me," said Haithem Abdul-Wahab, 44, as he stretched a huge campaign poster for the Iraqi Islamic Party on an iron frame. "I had an Iraqi flag in my car and they tore it."

A nearby security guard, Abdullah Wa’ad, 30, shouted out, "We don’t want Kurds in Mosul!"

The feeling is much the same in a disputed village north of Mosul, a few miles from the dam, populated by 21 Kurdish families. The village’s name in Kurdish is Ghani Shireen, but it was given an Arab name, Ain Hilwa, after eight Arab families were forced to move there in 1991 as part of Saddam Hussein’s effort to "Arabize" the area and dilute Kurdish control. The Arab families left after the Americans, allied with the Kurds, arrived in 2003.

Now many worry what it will mean for them with Arabs likely to be in control of the provincial council. Saddiq Abdullah, 48, bitter at having been thrown off his land when the Arabs arrived, said it would be good if these elections helped inch Kurdistan closer to his village.

"Kurdistan is a stable and safe country," he said. "We would sleep there without bombs or worries."

But for all the ethnic and sectarian politics, there is a small voice – rising in Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq – that is looking for competence first.

Firas Jamil, 25, a Kurd who owns an electronics shop in Mosul’s barricaded downtown, listed his priorities: better electricity and water; unblocked streets; more jobs; and of course greater safety.

For that, he is turning to al-Hudba, perhaps Arab but in his mind more capable.

"Here we vote for the political party that would serve the interests of the city," he said, "regardless of ethnic identification."

The New York Times
January 30, 2009