DOHUK, Kurdistan – As Iraq’s first national election since the fall of Saddam Hussein draws near, the country seems more on the brink of falling apart than of coming together in a celebration of democracy.
Attacks against Shi’ite targets have increased in an effort to keep them away from the polling booths, security sources say. The Sunni minority is battling furiously to prevent the consolidation of a system in which they forfeit their traditional dominance.
Yet it is in the northern, Kurdish part of the country where violence is relatively rare and the polls are going full-steam ahead, that the fictitiousness of the unity of Iraq is most convincingly exposed.
Kurdistan has been de facto autonomous since the Gulf War of 1991, when the allies imposed a no-fly zone over the area and the local fighters, the Peshmerga, pushed Saddam Hussein’s troops out of their mountainous region.
The Kurds have had their own government, army and police for the last 13 years and they are not about to let the central government have any say over their affairs ever again. They are for now forced to stay in a nominally united Iraq but hatred between them and "the Arabs" runs deep.
The white pick-up truck of Dohuk’s deputy commander of police Shaalan Mustafa is riddled with bullets, and has blood on the windows and dashboard. Just a few days ago the pickup was attacked and one of his best friends was killed, he says.
The car is now parked safely outside the Dohuk police station but the attacks took place just outside Kurdistan in the Arab part of the country. It was an ambush, Mustafa says. "The terrorists were after me because they knew I was a high Kurdish officer and I was traveling there," he told IPS.
As a precaution he had changed vehicle and the route on his trip back from Syria and he was not in his car when the attack took place. When he rushed to the spot in village Mahmoudieh near the Syrian border, his friend in the car was dead.
"We carried him in our arms in the rain and nobody wanted to help us," said Shaalan. "It was an Arab village and we were Kurds, they wanted us dead."
Kurds have suffered a lot under different Iraqi governments, or Arab regimes as they say, and especially under Saddam Hussein. They are not inclined to forget this.
They see the election Sunday as an opportunity to put on a show of strength. Kurdish parties are putting forward a united list and are trying to maximize voter turnout in their areas that by now extend far beyond the borders of the three provinces they controlled before.
The Kurdish political scene is dominated by two parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The chairman of the KDP in the Dohuk governorate is an old Peshmerga commander who goes by the name of Qachay. He is categorical about the aims of the Kurds.
"We have three objectives," he said. "To show how many we are and get a lot of seats in the new Iraqi national assembly, to achieve a federal constitution, and to arrange for the areas that belong to traditional Kurdistan to be officially under our control."
That last issue is particularly explosive at the moment. The focus of Kurdish territorial claims is the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk. This infuriates the Sunni population that already feels it is being squeezed out of the political process, and now also has to watch its territory challenged.
Regionally, Turkey is against a Kurdish claim on Kirkuk because it will strengthen the Kurd case for an independent state, something Turks strenuously oppose. They are worried this will set an example their own Kurdish population might then want to follow.
Kurds are aware of the international situation. "We would prefer to be independent but that is unrealistic for now," says Qachay. "So we opt for autonomy inside a federal Iraq, everybody wants Iraq to remain intact."
A large turnout in the elections will send a signal to the rest of Iraq that they have to take the Kurdish claims seriously. "Now the decisions about the future of Iraq have to be made by mutual consent, we are no longer second class citizens like we used to be before," Qachay says.
But mutual consent is not something Kurds apply to the Arab population of cities such as Kirkuk. They say many of these people were collaborators with Saddam Hussein, and that they were given the houses of Kurds who were driven out, or ethnically cleansed, as they say.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, thousands of Arabs have been told to leave. In many cases the old owners of the houses, Kurds who had been sent away to places in the south, have returned to claim their property.
The few security problems that Kurdistan is facing in the run-up to the election can be traced back either to neighboring violence-wracked Arab areas such as Mosul, or to the "deported Arabs," says the head of the security service in the Dohuk governorate, Khalil Shakhi.
Over the last three months there have been three attempts on the life of the governor of Dohuk. In two of the cases Shakhi says the attackers were caught, and turned out to be "deported Arabs."
He says they are members of the new Sunni fundamentalist movement, Ansar al-Sunna, possibly a successor to the Ansar al-Islam movement that used to have bases in Kurdish territory under Saddam Hussein.
Many Arabs are staying on in the Kurdish areas. "The Americans would not allow us to send everybody home," says Shakhi. But they are regarded as a possible fifth column. "We keep a close eye on them," he says.
"The strength of the Kurdish people is in their cohesion," says Shakhi. "Assyrians, Chaldeans, even Turkmen, all feel Kurdish. They help us keep the quiet. When there is a problem, or somebody suspicious, they inform us. Only the Arabs are a problem."