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Iraq's north locked in own bitter struggle

Kurds once fought Turkmen and Arabs for power in Kirkuk. Now they're fighting each other.

Supporters of the "Goran" or "Change" party in Kirkuk, northern Iraq, wave flags in a convoy on March 3. The party's popularity has caused problems in Kirkuk and other Kurdish areas, where the two biggest Kurdish parties view it as a threat to their power. Party officials say the old Kurdish parties are corrupt and need to be reformed. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

KIRKUK, Iraq — When campaigning for Iraq’s parliamentary election season officially kicked off at midnight in the diverse, oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, U.S. Army Col. Larry Swift was stunned.

Read more on the Iraq election.

“It literally started at midnight, and it was like race,” said Swift, whose 1st brigade of the 1st Armored Division is responsible for Kirkuk and the surrounding area. “Posters went up, banners went up, flags went up. It was a sprint to make as big as impression as possible, and in that sprint there was some stepping on each others’ toes.”

In the Feb. 11 rush to tape, nail and erect as many campaign posters and pictures as possible, “tensions” developed. Usually, fights or clashes in Kirkuk take place between the city’s largest groups: the Kurds, Arabs or Turkmen. But this time the problems were within the Kurdish community itself, and caused by the existence of a new political party, called Goran, or “Change.”

“The Kurdistan alliance started tearing down our posters and billboards, throwing them away or burning them, in order to keep our keep us away from the streets,” said Jalal Jawhar, the Change’s director in Kirkuk.

Jawhar said the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, sent party members to intimidate Goran supporters by shooting guns outside their homes. He said the Iraqi police did nothing, because they were members of the two large and established Kurdish parties, the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP.

American officials told GlobalPost that they were “surprised” by the competition, and the disputes, that took place between the Kurds. The PUK and KDP did fight violent civil wars in the 1980s and '90s, but since the late '90s the two groups had shared power in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and government in northern Iraq.

Jawhar, who as a PUK guerrilla fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime, said his “Change” party would help do away with the corrupt, rigid ways of the old Kurdish parties.

“Those groups, especially the PUK, they have a mentality, a way of thinking, that doesn’t allow the others to be in the political process with them,” he said. “They only want to control everything by themselves. So that’s why they’re tearing down the posters or intimidating people and telling them to stop trying to be in politics.”

Rifaat Abdullah, the PUK leader in Kirkuk and Jawri’s cousin, denies targeting the Change party’s supporters or political advertising. He says his party has been the victim of intimidation and vandalism coming from the Change party’s ranks, and that one man was injured and another killed when someone shot them as they drove down a street in Kirkuku on a motorcycle flying the PUK flag. Despite the incidents and resulting tension, he says Kurds will not fight against each other again.

“The Kurds had a very hard time in the past,” he said. “The leadership has decided not to repeat this experience, because what happened in the past is considered shameful.”

All three Kurdish parties can agree on one thing: that Kirkuk is part of the traditional Kurdish homeland, and should be part of the Kurd’s northern autonomous region, and some day an independent Kurdish nation. Each party still has their own security forces, and Peshmerga, who man their bases in Kirkuk.