Iraq's upcoming provincial elections have exacerbated tensions along the ethnically mixed frontier between the traditionally Arab parts of the country and its Kurdish autonomous region in the north.
As Election Day looms in Nineveh province, where the most dramatic power shift is expected, Sunni Arab politicians are vowing to curb the influence of the Kurdish regional government, which in recent years has sent millions of dollars and thousands of soldiers into villages south of the territory it formally controls.
The 2005 elections, which most Sunni Arabs boycotted, left Nineveh province solidly in the hands of Kurds, a minority in the predominantly Arab province. The Kurds currently hold 31 of the 37 seats on the provincial council, the equivalent of an American state legislature. In the vote set for Saturday, Arabs in Nineveh are widely expected to win a comfortable majority.
Taking the reins of Nineveh's government would allow Arabs to appoint a governor and use their political power to roll back Kurdish expansion, which is being bitterly contested in villages across the 300-mile swath of disputed territories, as well as in Baghdad and in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish autonomous region. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Arab, and Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, have exchanged heated accusations in recent weeks, underscoring the intensity of a conflict that U.S. officials and Iraq experts have come to view as Iraq's most potentially destabilizing.
'Caught up in the front lines'
The power struggle has made battlegrounds of places such as Qaraqosh, Iraq's largest Christian town, which lies about 15 miles southeast of Nineveh's capital, Mosul. Sherbel Issou, Qaraqosh's senior priest, prides himself on having kept his flock largely unscathed by war. But in recent months, as the rhetoric has sharpened and campaign promises have begun sounding like calls for battle, residents of the disputed areas are feeling squeezed.
"We're the land in between," the chipper 65-year-old priest said. "When there's a battle, it's people like us who get caught up in the front lines. We provide security for the people in this town. But we can't seal the town off to everybody."
Wedged between the devastated city of Mosul and the prosperous Kurdish autonomous region, Qaraqosh is home to roughly 40,000 Assyrian Christians, who have lived for the past five years in the shadow of the insurgency.
Largely invisible to the provincial and central governments, the town has had only one reliable, undisputed authority since 2003: the church. Shortly after the war began, the Kurdistan Democratic Party opened an office here. A banner posted at the party's headquarters proclaimed, "Under the parliament and government of the Kurdistan region, the Assyrians, Chaldeans and Turkmens will enjoy their rights."
Soon afterward, as violence picked up in Nineveh, Sarkis Aghajan, the Kurdish region's finance minister, began funding a Christian militia that currently has 1,200 members in Qaraqosh and surrounding villages.
"I don't ask where the money comes from," Issou said, noting that he has never bothered to determine whether it comes from the Kurdish government's coffers. "I don't want to know. They pay the salaries for those guards to feed their families, so we bless them."
Shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, the Kurdish government began deploying soldiers of its militia, the pesh merga, to towns in Nineveh and other provinces that border the Kurdish region. In the years that followed, as the Iraqi army and police forces were disbanded and a burgeoning insurgency took control of vast stretches of the country, the presence of the Kurdish militia drew little criticism.
After the 2005 elections, non-Kurds in several villages in northern Iraq said the militia's soldiers had prevented them from voting. In Qaraqosh, residents awoke on Election Day thrilled by the prospect of casting votes.
"We waited from morning until noon," Issou said. But the ballots never came. Later, Issou said, town leaders discovered that ballot boxes earmarked for Qaraqosh had been taken to a neighboring town and stuffed with ballots marked for Kurdish candidates.
"So much for freedom and democracy," he said, laughing.
Nineveh has become Iraq's most restive province. As violence has ebbed across the country in recent months, the U.S. military has shifted troops and resources to Mosul, now among the country's most dangerous cities.
Governance of the province, by all accounts, has been disastrous. The sitting provincial council does not dispute that, but it blames the central government in Baghdad for withholding its budgeted funds and otherwise thwarting the authority of local leaders.
"We can't even appoint a policeman without getting approval from the ministries in Baghdad," complained Khosro Goran, Nineveh's deputy governor. "In Baghdad, there has been a lot of pressure on us because they know this government belongs to the Kurdish parties, and they're always trying to link us to their problems with" the Kurdish regional government.
Much of Mosul remains in shambles. Millions of dollars that the central government sent to the province last year to fund reconstruction projects have vanished. Tens of thousands of residents have been displaced, including many Christian families who fled the city last fall amid a string of killings.
Kurdish leaders say Sunni insurgents were behind the slayings. Some Arab politicians have blamed the Kurds, suggesting that the campaign was designed to undermine confidence in the central government's security forces.
Arab parties have accused Kurdish officials and their proxies of intimidating and detaining their candidates, and expressed concern that Kurdish soldiers will keep voters from polling sites Saturday in areas where Kurds are expected to do poorly. The Kurds reject those accusations and call their opponents political novices who have ties to the insurgency.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they fear that the perception of unfair elections on the part of either side, or both, could trigger a fresh wave of violence. On Tuesday, a bomb detonated near an office of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Mosul, killing three policemen. It was unclear whether the office was the intended target.
"It could get very nasty because the stakes are so high," said Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert at the nonpartisan International Crisis Group. "You're going to have allegations of fraud. Parties that lose are not going to accept that."
Even if the political stalemate doesn't turn violent, a protracted fight over disputed areas is likely to create breathing room for insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, which has clung onto Mosul.
"Nineveh is a place where all the fault lines of Iraq meet," a senior U.S. official in Baghdad said.
Abdullah Humedi Ajeel al-Yawer, a wealthy, influential tribal leader who is one of the founders of the largest opposition party, al-Hadba-a, says he is eager to keep the fight in the political arena. But in a province with only a short, troubled history of democracy and a mix of politically malleable armed forces, his faith in the power of the ballot box is limited.
Some of his candidates have been detained and their offices ransacked, he said. Hadba-a candidates say they have been forced to campaign in whispers in areas controlled by the pesh merga.
'We will do anything to protect ourselves'
Humedi, 40, a towering man who travels with a small army of bodyguards, takes pride in his ability to quickly mobilize tribesmen, saying he can gather tens of thousands of men in a few hours.
"I personally work against violence," Humedi said recently, sipping espresso in the living room of his palatial fortress near the Syrian border. "I try to keep my people out of the violence. But to protect ourselves? We will do anything to protect ourselves and our democracy. All options are on the table."
Kurdish candidates call such rhetoric dangerous — but not surprising from leaders they say have checkered pasts.
"Where were the political parties that are competing with us now?" Khalil Ismail, a Kurdish candidate in Qaraqosh asked defiantly. "Were they with the political process or with the terrorists?"
The fight for votes is complicated by the vast oil reserves in the disputed region and competing ancestral claims to them by Arabs and Kurds, who in recent decades have been pushed in and out of the area, often by force.
"The debate is quite legitimate," the senior U.S. official said. "And it's a debate that is likely to go on for years, even in a prosperous Iraq. The line has never really been drawn. It's going to be very difficult to determine the boundary in this dispute because the population has shifted so many times and so dramatically."
Special correspondents Dlovan Brwari and Zaid Sabah contributed to this report.