February 2, 2009 / 7:45 AM / 9 years ago

Vote sows seeds of greater calm in Iraq's north

By Tim Cocks

MOSUL, Iraq, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Voting in Iraq’s restive Nineveh province looks likely to restore disenfranchised Sunni Arabs to power, and possibly ease resentment that has fuelled continued violence there, officials said.

There were few complaints of fraud from either Sunni Arab parties or their Kurdish rivals in the volatile northern province, where al Qaeda and other insurgent groups still roam.

Many had feared that provincial polls held on Saturday in 14 of Iraq’s 18 provinces could be a flashpoint for tensions between Arabs and Kurds in Nineveh if either cried foul.

The election turned out to be Iraq’s most peaceful since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein.

A top U.S. official close to the process said there had been "some, not many" complaints of irregularities in Nineveh, Iraq’s most lawless province.

"I haven’t seen any allegations that on election day the results were significantly skewed for one party," he said.

"Nobody trusts anyone here so (we) put everyone together to have as many eyes on this process as possible."

The stakes are high in Nineveh, which has been plagued by an angry Sunni Arab insurgency and is home to rival ethnic Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs. The battle-scarred provincial capital Mosul sees frequent bombings and shootings, even as violence has fallen sharply across the rest of Iraq.

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 31 seats, despite being a quarter of it. The Kurdish dominance is seen as illegitimate by Sunnis, who ruled under Saddam and many of whom turned to the insurgency.

One party that had hoped to attract votes from disgruntled former members of Saddam’s Baath party is al-Hadba, a new bloc led by Atheel al-Nujaifi. He had pre-emptively accused the Kurds of vote-rigging.

But he told Reuters on Sunday: "I do not think there have been major breaches. We believe we will get 70 percent."

The U.S. official told reporters anecdotal evidence suggested al Hadba had won around two thirds of the vote.

"If al-Hadba has done as well as we think ... we’re probably looking at a provincial council in which al-Hadba can govern alone. The crisis of legitimacy is addressed."

Nineveh deputy governor Khasro Goran, a Kurd, said he had heard no reports of trickery or intimidation of voters. He added that he thought al-Hadba would not get over 50 percent so would need to form a coalition with the Kurds.

"Our doors are open. We don’t fear cooperation," he said.

Mohammed Shakir, local head of the other main Sunni Arab contender, the Iraqi Islamic Party, also applauded the vote.

"The election went smoothly. We think it was fair," he said.

Despite the positive reactions from politicians, the election was followed by at least one act of violence.

In a remote town south of Mosul, a house belonging to al-Hadba candidate Faisal al-Habu was blown up, police said. It was Habu’s second home and he was not there. No one was injured.

Preliminary results from the election are expected in a couple of days while final results may not be known for a month. (Editing by Michael Christie)

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