Election friction flares in Iraq's violent north

BAGHDAD Fri Jan 2, 2009 5:02pm GMT

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Tensions are mounting between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the Iraqi city of Mosul, where political violence is increasing ahead of provincial elections.

The United Nations this week condemned attacks on candidates competing in the January 31 provincial council vote in Mosul and the surrounding province of Nineveh.

Predictions that violence could flare ahead of the polls are already bearing out. On Wednesday, gunmen walked into a cafe in central Mosul and killed Mowaffaq al-Hamdani, a member of the Sunni Arab "Iraq for Us" party list.

He was the second candidate to be shot dead in a month.

In Nineveh, minority Kurds stand to lose the control they won when many of the area's Sunni Arabs stayed home during the last provincial elections in 2005.

An ethnic feud between Kurds and Arabs in the north has worsened in recent months, even as sectarian violence between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in other parts of Iraq has eased.

Disputes have simmered across an ethnically mixed swathe along the "green line" that separates the autonomous Kurdish region from the rest of the country. In Kirkuk, a divided city Kurds want as their capital, the election has been postponed.

In Mosul, a mainly Arab Sunni bloc, al-Hadba, which takes its name from an askew mosque minaret, says it has been targeted in a crackdown orchestrated by Kurdish officials ahead of the vote. The United Nations says the group has been hit by raids.

"They can't compete in a democratic atmosphere, so they try to resort to horror to eliminate others and impose their power in these areas," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab engineer and businessman who heads al-Hadba.

He said Kurdish parties were trying to move Kurds en masse into local towns ahead of the vote, to tilt the election result.

Kurdish politicians deny cracking down on al-Hadba and accuse the group of stoking ethnic divisions that date back to the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who repressed Kurds and moved Arabs into disputed Kurdish towns.

"We are not harassing anyone," said Khisro Goran, Nineveh's Kurdish deputy governor. He called al-Hadba an "enemy of the Kurds, who carry the ... aggressive thoughts of the past regime (of Saddam Hussein) against us."

In a strongly worded New Year's statement, the leader of the autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, criticised "short-sighted chauvinists and extremists in some Arab circles."

The January 31 election comes at a fragile point in Iraq's history, as U.S. troops come under an Iraqi mandate for the first time and Iraq's ability to resolve feuds will be tested.

The vote will apportion 440 seats on local councils that in turn name powerful regional governors.

"Campaign violence in Iraq must not be allowed to intimidate candidates or interfere with the right of every Iraqi to exercise their vote on 31 January," Staffan de Mistura, special U.N. representative in Iraq, said late on Thursday.

(Writing by Tim Cocks and Missy Ryan; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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