Sulaimaniyah Braced for Tense Poll
By Shorish Khalid in Sulaimaniyah
city expected to be a key electoral battleground
with much at stake for main contenders.
Kurdistan region 'Iraq', — The Iraqi Kurdistan city
of Sulaimaniyah is heading for a tense election that
analysts say could settle the fate of the region’s
dominant party, and of a new bloc trying to unseat
At least 11 people have been injured this month in
street-fighting involving the security forces and
rival supporters from the opposition Change list and
the incumbent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK.
Gunfire is often heard at night, though much of it
appears to be aimed skywards.
Supporters of the Kurdish Change List rally in
Sulaimaniyah with Blue flags (L) and PUK supporters
with Green flags
Fearing violence between
armed supporters, the authorities have imposed a ban
on campaigning between 9 pm and 6 am. Sulaimaniyah
is the only Iraqi province with a campaign curfew,
which party supporters are violating nightly.
In the evening hours, the city’s main thoroughfare
fills up with hot-blooded young men, chanting
provocative political slogans or cruising by in
cars, watched by scores of riot policemen.
Iraq’s nationwide parliamentary elections on March 7
are seen within Sulaimaniyah as the ultimate contest
for control of the city.
For decades, the city and the province that shares
its name have been the power base of the PUK. The
party is fighting this election on the joint
Kurdistani Alliance ticket alongside its onetime
rival and current partner in government, the
Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP.
In an election last July for the semi-autonomous
region’s parliament, the newly formed Change list
cut heavily into the PUK’s majority with a campaign
that played on discontent over perceived corruption
and cronyism in the government.
Change, known as Goran in Kurdish, secured nearly a
quarter of the seats in parliament, making it the
region’s main opposition group. Since June, the
rivalry between Change and the PUK has intensified.
Activists continue to confront each other in the
streets, while their leaders trade accusations of
betraying the Kurdish cause.
As the two groups enter this election, analysts say
the stakes are higher than ever.
“In the previous election, the PUK didn’t know the
size of the opposition. This time around, it knows
what it’s up against – so the contest is more
tense,” said Rebwar Karim, a political science
instructor at Sulaimaniyah University.
With 17 seats in the 325-seat Baghdad parliament,
Sulaimaniyah province is an important prize for
Butan Amedi, a Kurdish political observer based in
the United States, said the PUK could not afford to
lose seats in Baghdad, as this would leave it with
little real power besides the control of
Sulaimaniyah’s provincial administration.
“For the PUK, this election is about political
survival. For Goran, it’s about continuing their
movement to expand their influence in Baghdad,” he
Defeat for the PUK in Sulaimaniyah could also alter
the political equation within Iraqi Kurdistan,
leaving the weakened party unable to justify its
place as an equal partner in its power-sharing
agreement with the KDP.
Both sides say they are applying lessons learnt from
the previous campaign in June.
“This time round, we’re more experienced,” said
Osman Barani, a Change leader. “We’ve opened
campaign offices in the most of the city’s
Barani added that his list was better prepared to
combat possible electoral violations by the dominant
alliance. Change alleged widespread fraud in last
year’s regional elections, though this was denied by
the parties that won the vote.
The PUK also appears to have adapted its tactics in
Sulaimaniyah, with an attempt to emphasise the
party’s local origins. On the streets, fans of the
PUK were far more likely to be seen waving the
yellow flag of their party,www.ekurd.netrather
than the colours of the Kurdistani Alliance to which
it now belongs.
Farid Asasard, a member of the party’s leadership
committee, said it would not campaign on behalf of
its coalition partner, the KDP, as it had done in
June – a strategy thought to have alienated many PUK
supporters who fought the KDP during Iraqi
Kurdistan’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.
“This time, our grassroots are running the election
campaign,” Asasard added. “We, as leaders of the PUK,
are not showing ourselves.”
Zana Mohammed, the head of Sulaimaniyah’s security
committee, said police and anti-riot teams were
taking up joint positions at likely flashpoints in
The conspicuous presence of heavily armed, uniformed
men has proved contentious, however. Change says the
security forces are largely loyal to the PUK, and
their presence is intended to intimidate its
supporters – a charge the PUK denies.
Eleven people were injured on February 16 in a
skirmish involving Change supporters who had
gathered outside a PUK office in the city. According
to Mohammed Tofiq, a Change leader, his list’s
supporters were attacked by a counter-terrorism unit
loyal to the PUK.
However, Arif Rushdi, a member of the PUK’s
leadership committee, denied any such force was
involved and demanded evidence to back up Change’s
Some of the injured Change supporters were later
detained on suspicion of attacking the PUK office, a
police official told IWPR. All have now been freed
from custody, the official said.
On February 18, clashes were again reported as a
convoy carrying a PUK leader crossed the city’s main
street. Change supporters accused the leader’s
bodyguards of attacking them, while the PUK said the
list’s supporters had thrown stones at their
Aram Kamal, a 25-year-old taxi driver, said he had
stopped parking on the main thoroughfare because he
feared the violence would worsen.
“I’m worried about people throwing acid at my car.
I’m fed up with them,” he said.
Shorish Khalid is an IWPR-trained journalist in
Sulaimaniyah. IWPR local editor Hemin H Lihony also
contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.
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