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Violence roils Kurds in Iraq campaign

Although U.S. officials consider the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq a model of what Iraq could someday become, recent attacks serve as another reminder that Iraqis have been slow to discard the politics of force and intimidation in the country's lurch toward democracy.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

When hundreds of rioters ransacked and torched the Kurdistan Islamic Union office in this northern Iraqi city last week, their message seemed as clear as the electric-blue graffiti left on the building's blackened shell.

Spray-painted across a stone facade dimpled with hundreds of bullet holes were the words "Long live 730," the numerical ballot designation for the political alliance led by Iraq's two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Along a stairwell, someone had written "traitors."

Mobs carried out similar daylight attacks in five cities in normally tranquil Dahuk province on Dec. 6, destroying offices of the Islamic Union, which quit the alliance last month to field its own candidates in Thursday's parliamentary elections. Four party members were killed, including two shot in the head here in the provincial capital who died of their wounds Saturday. Dozens were injured, many of them police officers.

Model region?
Although U.S. officials consider the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq a model of what Iraq could someday become, the attacks last week served as another reminder that Iraqis have been slow to discard the politics of force and intimidation in the country's lurch toward democracy. The violence also highlights deep social fissures within Iraq's rival ethnic and religious groups.

"Is there any doubt the big parties punished us for leaving the coalition? It is impossible that anything like this can happen here without their hand in it," said Omar Badi, an Islamic Union candidate for parliament, standing beside the wreckage of 21 cars set ablaze that day. "This had to be organized. It did not happen spontaneously."

Local officials and police said the KDP, the dominant power in the province, had not orchestrated the attacks. Public animosity had built for weeks against the Islamic Union, a Sunni Muslim party, for portraying the coming election as a clash of believers and nonbelievers in a region known for secularism and religious tolerance, politicians and residents said.

"The Islamic Union must share blame. They stirred this up. Their ideology led to an incident we didn't want," said Dahuk Gov. Tamar Ramadan, who, like the province's police chief and most members of the provincial council, is a member of the KDP. "We wanted to stop it, and we tried to. But it is impossible to stand against a crowd so large."

The following account is based on information from several witnesses to last week's violence and two videos provided by the Islamic Union, as well as interviews with party officials from all sides involved, police and independent election monitors in Dahuk, a city of about 400,000 people less than 50 miles from the border with Turkey.

Dahuk city is nestled in a lush valley ringed by bald, craggy peaks. The undisputed local power is the KDP, led by Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, whose pugnacious style draws comparisons to Saddam Hussein. A hulking statue of Barzani's father, Mustafa, a revered Kurdish separatist leader who founded the KDP in 1946, stands at the edge of the city.

Campaign heats up
While the KDP and the PUK have occasionally fought for control over the Kurdish independence movement they jointly lead, they and other Kurdish parties formed a united slate for last January's parliamentary elections. But this time, frustrated by its lack of influence within the alliance, the Islamic Union decided to run on its own, members said.

"The rights of the Kurds in Iraq were secured, and we wanted to work on other issues," said Badi. "We are a separate party and we have the freedom to do this."

The Islamic Union soon began airing advertisements on a party-owned radio station calling the local government corrupt and comparing the coming election to Uhud, a 7th-century battle between early Muslims and nonbelievers.

"They called us agents of the Americans and the Israelis," said Ali Nirwaie, provincial head of the KDP. "They have the right to advertise for their party, but they don't have the right to talk badly about the others."

Badi said the KDP mounted its own media offensive against the Islamic Union, which receives funding from religious groups in several Arab countries. People posted signs in Dahuk accusing the party of "working with the Arabs against the Kurds," an inflammatory charge in a region where animosity toward Arabs runs deep. Posters depicted an Islamic Union member shaking hands with a man in an Arab headdress.

Rumors of an attack
The week before the attacks, Islamic Union members said, they heard from friends in the KDP that trouble might be coming their way. Badi went to see U.S. Army Maj. Calvin Robinson, a civil affairs officer stationed in Dahuk.

"We passed his concerns up the chain of command, but they were only that -- concerns," Robinson said. "After that, we monitored the situation the best we could."

On Dec. 1, five days before the attacks, Badi and Sayid Ali Abu, the local party head, wrote a letter that they said was hand-delivered to the provincial government. "We have received information from a multitude of sources on the intention of some members and supporters of the Kurdistan Democratic Party to stage a demonstration targeting our party offices, storming them, as well as harming our staff and vandalizing our property," it said. "We respectfully ask you to provide the necessary protection for our offices in the following cities: Dahuk, Zakhu, Amadiyah, Aqrah, Bardarash."

Dahuk's police chief, Waadallah Muhammed Selky, said that Ramadan, the governor, "called and told me, you will be responsible for anything that happens."

About 11 a.m. on Dec. 6, dozens of students -- some as young as 10, others from the local technical high school -- gathered outside the Islamic Union headquarters, a four-story stone building festooned with a giant flag of Kurdistan that sits along a main highway. Other locals joined them, and the crowd quickly grew, with estimates ranging from 5,000 to 10,000.

"At noon, people from the Islamic Union called me by phone and said things were getting out of control," Selky said in an interview in his office, where he keeps a photograph of himself shaking hands with Barzani by his desk. "I sent some cars over there and then I went myself."

When Selky and Gov. Ramadan arrived, along with a company of soldiers from a local army branch, police and soldiers made a ring around the building to protect it from attack. "The crowd had one request," Ramadan said. "They wanted the Kurdistan flag taken down from their front wall."

Azad Omar Haji, 36, a restaurant worker in Dahuk who joined the crowd, said later: "We wanted them to put up the Saudi flag or the Egypt flag, since that is who they are."

Ramadan sent a delegation, including the city's mayor, inside about 1 p.m. "We asked them to just take it down for a half-hour, so everyone would calm down and go away," the governor said. The request was refused.

Meanwhile, people began breaking through the police cordon, smashing rocks against the building's front door and throwing bricks through windows. Others overturned cars and set them on fire. When the fire spread to the building's lower floors, party members took refuge on the roof.

On the video provided by the party, some soldiers can be seen attempting to stop people from entering the building. Others stand by and watch. "They let it happen," said Othman Younis, an Islamic Union member who said he had been trapped inside the building.

'Everything went crazy'
"We tried as hard as we could to keep the crowd back, but there were too many of them, and the people on the roof were playing with the nerves of the crowd, pouring oil on the fire," Selky said. On the roof, Islamic Union members waved election posters as rocks hurtled past. They pointed to the south, where Iraq's Arab population lives, and clasped their hands in solidarity.

In the mounting chaos, a shot rang out and a bullet struck a policeman in the right ankle. Several witnesses said it was fired by a party member on the roof. Party members said they had no weapons on hand and did not fire a shot that day.

"Someone shouted, 'They are killing the police,' " Selky said. "Then everything went crazy."

Armed members of the crowd opened fire on the building, riddling it with bullets from all directions.

"We hid behind walls and crouched on the floor," said another Islamic Union member, Khalil Kocher, his head still bandaged from a bullet that ricocheted off a wall and struck a glancing blow above his temple.

Dozens of people stormed the building, emptying containers of gasoline inside and igniting them. With the structure now engulfed in smoke, Islamic Union members scrambled out the back entrance and pushed toward cars or taxis to take the wounded to a hospital.

Three men had been shot in the head, another in the stomach. Two of the gunshot victims died Saturday in Dahuk's hospital.

In addition, 12 police officers and seven civilians were wounded, including two young girls.

Multiple attacks
Meanwhile, in cities hundreds of miles apart across Dahuk province, Islamic Union offices were also under attack.

In Zakhu, on the Turkish border, two Islamic Union members inside their office died when a crowd opened fire with machine guns and rockets, Badi said. Eleven other party members were jailed for three days. In the towns of Amadiyah, Bardarash and Aqrah, "it was different theaters, but the same play," Badi said. "It was the KDP's plan."

Asked to explain the apparent coordination of the attacks, the governor, police chief and local party head gave nearly identical answers. Each reached for a cell phone and held it aloft.

"People started making calls," Ramadan said. "They called their friends and relatives and told them what was happening, and it just grew like that. It is not so hard to imagine."

So far, police in Dahuk have made three arrests, all of them Islamic Union members identified by people in the crowd as having shot at police and civilians.

"The big question is whether or not the events that took place could happen like that without being orchestrated. I don't know, but you can read between the lines," said a Western diplomat in Kirkuk who has investigated the incidents and spoke on condition he not be named. Asked about allegations that the KDP had played a role, he said, "It's hard to disagree with that assessment."

"Perhaps some people think we were behind this," said Nirwaie, the local KDP chief. "But the truth is, these types of things happen in elections in many places, random incidents. We are the ones in power here. We will get almost 100 percent support. Tell me, why would we make trouble?"

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Dahuk and correspondent Ellen Knickmeyer in Baghdad contributed to this report.