Kirkuk Preachers Enter Election Fray

Religious leaders in disputed city step up efforts to mobilise the faithful.

Kirkuk Preachers Enter Election Fray

Religious leaders in disputed city step up efforts to mobilise the faithful.

Friday, 18 November, 2005

Muslim leaders in this ethnically-divided city are trying to convert religious zeal into results at the ballot box on January 30. Arab and Kurdish clerics are vying for voters, but it looks like the former will have the upper hand when it comes to rallying the faithful.

Mullah Sirwan Ahmad, the preacher of the Iskan Mosque, is urging Kurds to go to the polls, saying anyone who does not go is a “traitor, ex-Baathist and the enemy of the Kurds”.

“We must elect our real representatives. Our representatives are Kurds and an Arab never represents us,” he said. “If Arabs have ever represented Kurds, they would not have killed them and kicked them out from Hawija [a town south of Kirkuk].”

Mullah Teib Abdullah, a preacher at the Omer Ibn al-Khatab Mosque, is also urging his Sunni Arab believers to vote.

“Whoever doesn’t go to vote will be cursed by God on Judgment Day,” said Abdullah.

This high-stakes political preaching is no surprise in the disputed city of Kirkuk. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein sought to change the ethnic makeup of the oil-rich regional centre in the mid-Seventies by forcibly removing Kurds and Turkoman and replacing them with Arabs from southern Iraq and Baathist officials.

Many Kurds view Kirkuk as a future capital and economic heart of an independent Kurdish state. Since the fall of Saddam, tens of thousands of Kurds have returned to the city to try to reclaim their homes and register to vote.

Sabah Fatah, a Kurd from Kirkuk, said while it is good to hear clerics speaking out about the elections, it is unlikely to change the way Kurds vote.

Fatah said the Kurdish people in Iraq do not follow a central religious figure or group as some Arabs do. Instead, Kurdish clerics are more likely to follow the lead of the Kurdish political parties.

The efforts in Kirkuk are part of a larger campaign in mosques throughout Iraq to get believers to turn out at the polls.

The most prominent election fatwa in Iraq is the one issued by top Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who described voting as a religious duty.

The Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars responded with a fatwa of its own, calling for a boycott of the elections, describing them as illegal and held under foreign occupation. The leading Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, withdrew its candidate list in December as part of the boycott.

Some believe that it was the Americans that gave clerics a leading role in Iraq’s political system.

“Prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Sistani didn’t have any role in Iraq, but the Americans made him like you see now,” said Azad Jalal, a philosophy graduate.

“Now the people of the south of Iraq can [be mobilised] only by a fatwa from Sistani. This war of fatwas is very dangerous to the future of Iraq.”

Sangar Jamal is an IWPR trainee journalist in Iraq.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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