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Municipal elections in Kirkuk marred by ethnic tensions

KIRKUK—The first attempt Saturday by U.S. officials to settle ethnic tension through free elections in this deeply divided city fell victim to them instead, as Arab leaders condemned the process as unfair and threatened a walkout.

U.S. military leaders had hoped municipal elections would give people in Iraq a say in their future while leaders in Baghdad hammer out a framework for a national government. They pointed to local government elections in Mosul, held earlier this month, as proof that Iraq could transition quickly from the vestiges of a brutal dictatorship to a democratically chosen government.

Leaders here also hoped elections in this northern Iraq oil city would help defuse tension among the mix of 100,000 residents made up of Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians and ethnic Turks and set the stage for reconstruction. Just last weekend, violent clashes here killed 30 residents and wounded one U.S. soldier.

But before Saturday's elections began, U.S. soldiers arrested five Arab delegates and traipsed them handcuffed through a hallway outside the auditorium where the election was to be held. The men are being questioned about their alleged role as high-ranking Baath Party officials in Saddam Hussein's regime.

"There is something wrong here," said Adbul Rahman Al-Asi, standing and pointing toward Maj. Gen. Ray Odierno, who oversaw the elections as commander of the provinces surrounding Kirkuk. "This is unfair."

Four parties representing the ethnic mix of the city were each charged with electing members to a city council of sorts, which is to choose an interim mayor and three deputies on Tuesday.

The 30-member council was to have six members from each group as well as six independents.

Arab delegates claimed the process favored Kurds, who managed to grab five of six seats reserved for independent candidates. When none of the six "independent" council members chosen Saturday were Arab, leaders complained loudly and threaten to withdraw from the elections. They also said several of the men arrested by the U.S. military would have been candidates.

Arab men stood in the aisle and raised their hands. An independent delegate stood and told the crowd that the men were chosen in an election and everyone must abide by the balloting. The crowd applauded.

The Turkman delegation also stood and complained that they too had no representative on the independent body.

"I am the only Turkman from the independent ballot who was even allowed in today," said Suphi Sabir, who is a pharmacist. "How can we win when we are not even considered."

Before the elections were over, Odierno ordered two Turkman delegates removed from the building. The Turkman delegation later delivered a written protest to Odierno complaining that no Turks were included on the independent list.

At one point, it appeared the Arab delegates were going to leave in protest as they moved to the aisle of the auditorium. But they decided to remain and even applauded after Odierno promised to review the election of the six independent candidates, who were not sworn in during the ceremony. Odierno told the crowd that he would make his decision in a day or two and it would be one they all must accept.

Kurdish leaders praised the process and noted the Arabs simply are not accustomed to a Democracy.

"They have to abide by the process," said Dr. Kamal Karkuki, a local Kurdish leader. "You can't say you will abide by the vote and leave if you don't like the results."

Some noted that U.S. military leaders supplied a list of 12 independent candidates and asked the delegates to select just six. One of those candidates was Ali N. Salhi, a former Kurdish fighter who lives part-time in Washington, D.C., runs an organization called Iraq First that opposed Saddam, and has lobbied the Bush administration for a free Kurdish state.

"This is the happiest day of my life," Salhi said. "To see Democracy in my beloved Kirkuk."

Despite the bickering, Odierno declared the elections a success as he surveyed a post-election banquet where all four factions dined together, albeit briefly. He said the arrest of the Arab delegates was not intended to upset the balance in the elections. Arab leaders said the move almost caused them to withdraw from the elections altogether. Two members of the Arab delegation were arrested last week. One was later released.

"I am very sad about this," said Wasfi Muzher Al-Asi, a leader in the Arab party and one of the men elected Saturday. "The United States put a lot of pressure on Arabs with these arrests in front of everyone." Al-Asi said the delegation decided to stay for the sake of Arabs in the city. Odierno said he would not permit the elections to be tarnished by the selection of Baathists, which marred the results of the Mosul elections.

"This is pretty much what we expected to happen," he said. "They just have to learn that in a Democracy your candidate does not always win.


(Sullivan writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-ELECTION