MOSUL Tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs are rising in Iraq's volatile northern city of Mosul and the surrounding province following local elections in January which saw Sunni representation jump dramatically.
Kurdish-led provincial council members and Kurdish-run towns have vowed to boycott the now Sunni-dominated provincial council, some going as far as to say they want to join the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
There is already underlying discord between Baghdad and Arbil, the autonomous Kurdish capital, over the division of oil wealth and control of northern towns, especially the oil-rich and ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.
On Wednesday in Zummar, one of the Kurdish towns that has joined the boycott against the provincial council, a suicide car bomber attacked a checkpoint run by Kurdish Peshmerga forces while a Peshmerga commander survived a separate car bomb attack, police said.
"The situation is going to become even more intense if there isn't political agreement," said Ahmed Qassim, 35, an Arab shop owner, reflecting widespread concern among residents.
"There are armed groups like al Qaeda that will try to exploit these disputes. There will be other explosions soon in an Arab area in response to the bombs today in Zummar," he said.
While violence has fallen sharply across most of Iraq, al Qaeda and other insurgents have made a stand in Mosul, Iraq's third largest city, and the surrounding Nineveh province, where Arabs, minority Kurds and Christians and others make for an uneasy mix.
Mosul, and similarly mixed Diyala province, are the two areas where the U.S. forces that invaded Iraq in 2003 to topple Saddam Hussein still conduct major combat operations.
Analysts and U.S. officials had hoped that provincial elections in January would ease some of the tensions in Mosul.
Much of the violence there was fueled by resentment among Sunni Arabs who felt disenfranchised after they boycotted the last elections in 2005. Minority Kurds controlled the previous council, despite constituting just a quarter of the population.
The Sunni Arab Al-Hadba list won 48.4 percent of the vote in January and got 19 seats out of 37 on the council.
Striking a deal with fellow Sunnis of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which won three seats, Al-Hadba ensured all positions of power and influence in the province, such as that of governor and deputy governor, went to its supporters.
Kurdish groups won 12 seats and council members from the Kurdish-led 'Brotherly List' are now boycotting council meetings.
Jabor Mohammed Abdullah of al-Hadba, who heads the council, said his party bore no enmity toward the Brotherly List and called the Kurdish-run town's actions illegal.
Kurdish authorities in about 16 towns in Nineveh said they would not obey the provincial council and instead wanted to join the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
"These (towns) announced the boycott of the new local government because Al-Hadba took over all top positions in the provincial council and marginalized the Nineveh Brotherly list," said Hassan Yermou, mayor of the disputed town of Shekhan.
"We ask the security forces not to intervene."
Dakhil Qassim Hassoun, mayor of the town of Sinjar, accused Al-Hadba of being backed by members of Saddam Hussein's former army and of his outlawed Baath party, and said they were "trying to ignite strife and division."
In Zummar on Wednesday, an attacker tried to ram a car packed with explosives into a Kurdish checkpoint. Police sources said one of the Kurdish soldiers opened fire at the car and it detonated before reaching its target.
In a separate incident, also in Zummar, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander escaped death when a car bomb exploded near his convoy. No one was hurt in the attack, police said.
(Editing by Michael Christie and Matthew Jones)