MOSUL – Mosul could be the most dangerous city in Iraq on election Sunday. The city is something of a Sunni island in the Kurd-dominated north of Iraq.
Troop reinforcements from the U.S.-supervised Iraqi National Guard (ING) are being brought from Kurdistan into the violence-plagued city. In mostly night-time raids, they have arrested scores of people suspected of carrying out attacks.
But the troops often turn from the hunters into the hunted on the mean streets of Mosul. One column of Kurdish soldiers of the 104th battalion of the 23rd ING brigade ran into ambushes twice over the last couple of days.
These soldiers had been sent to Mosul in November after militants threatened to overrun the mostly Sunni Arab but partly Kurdish city. This was at the time of the U.S. offensive in Fallujah.
The Sunni majority in Mosul had insisted earlier that Kurds, the most loyal U.S. allies in Iraq, stay outside the city. But now the Kurds run the security of Mosul with the Americans.
Sunni Arab attackers may now have an extra ethnic motivation for launching their attacks because the ING soldiers are mostly Kurds. The Kurds have little sympathy for the Arab population, who they almost universally see as "terrorists."
On a mission to help secure polling centers earlier this week, a convoy from the 104th ING battalion ran into an ambush on one of the main roads leading into the city. As the first couple of pickup trucks filled with soldiers passed a parked blue-and-white Toyota Land Cruiser, it went up in a ball of fire.
Two soldiers died before they could be taken to hospital, and four were seriously wounded. At the spot of the ambush Kurdish officers arrested two locals who seemed to have had very little to do with the incident. But they were Arabs and automatically suspected. They were taken to a camp and beaten up badly in the back of one of the pickup trucks.
Kurdish officers say militants get their information from the local population.
This was only one of a constant stream of attacks in Mosul over the past few months, despite the presence of experienced Kurdish fighters, and U.S. efforts to get a grip on the city ahead of the elections.
Starting Friday the city has been put under special emergency regulations in the run-up to the vote Sunday. Cars are not allowed in the streets and several ING units have been deployed around the polling stations.
But few expect a high turnout. "The elections will go ahead," says Col. Aris Zeibari who commands the 104th. "But not many people will come and vote."
Kurdish units were only allowed into Mosul in November when the situation threatened to get completely out of hand. Until then local units had patrolled the city, but "they had a lot of traitors in their ranks," says Col. Zeibari.
"The people who do these things live among the population," he said. "They are former Ba’athists who should have been immediately rooted out after the fall of Saddam."
At the al-Kindi military base in Mosul, a former factory compound, Kurdish officers of the 104th are scathing about the 101st battalion quartered right next to them.
"Three of the four companies there are Arab, but don’t worry, we keep an eye on them," say the Kurd officers about their supposed brothers-in-arms.
The colonel who is second-in-command of the 101st is from a well-known Arab family in Mosul. He holds up a list of 265 soldiers who have deserted over the past year or so. "They joined for the money but never showed up again after they were threatened," said the colonel, who wanted his name kept out of the media..
He too does not expect many to vote. "The terrorists went house to house to warn people not to vote," he said.
Another officer said militants threaten families of ING personnel. "They say they will kidnap our children and burn down our houses."
Mosul is not typical of the whole country. In the Kurdish north the vote is set to go ahead relatively unimpeded. In large parts of the Shi’ite south too the election could be held despite some recent violence.