Sulaimaniyah Violence Fears

Some warn of post-election clashes if fraud is suspected at the polls.

Sulaimaniyah Violence Fears

Some warn of post-election clashes if fraud is suspected at the polls.

Tensions are growing between supporters of two rival Kurdish coalitions ahead of a key parliamentary election which some suspect may result in clashes.

The campaign between a passionate opposition alliance and a powerful incumbent coalition is raising concerns that skirmishes and Iran-style protests could erupt following the July 25 poll.

The 111 seats in the parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government are being contested in a high-stakes election that is pitting the reform-driven Change list against the Kurdistani list, the alliance of the KRG’s two ruling parties.

Change was born earlier this year as a breakaway faction of Sulaimaniyah’s dominant party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK. Sulaimaniyah is one of three provinces in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The opposition group, which has gained momentum and street support over the past several months, aims to break the power of the PUK and its ally, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP. The two parties have held power in Iraqi Kurdistan for three decades.

Many believe that Change could emerge as the region’s first substantial opposition but concerns about fraud favouring incumbents are already being raised, and tensions are building in the street among the followers of the rival Change and Kurdistani lists.

“The situation is getting worse, and clashes between the supporters and the lists cannot be ruled out. The future looks dangerous if this momentum builds,” warned Farid Asasard, head of the Sulaimaniyah-based Kurdistan Center for Strategic Research.

“The situation is going to get even worse if the lists don’t control their supporters. If it continues like this, it’s possible that what happened in Iran will occur here.”

Kurdistan region president Massoud Barzani, who is seeking re-election, said this week he will “not allow any Kurdish blood to be spilled by Kurdish hands”.

Pre-election violence has been minimal, particularly given the intensity of the campaign. Fervent party loyalists have taunted one another on the streets for weeks without fighting, while leaders have called for their supporters to remain calm and respect the law.

But some are speculating that there may be unrest if Change supporters – whose leaders say the list is the front-runner in Sulaimaniyah – suspect fraud and do not accept the election results. A party from another opposition list, Service and Reform, said it plans to demonstrate if fraud is reported.

Mohamad Tofiq Rahim, a Change candidate, said he is confident that Change can win at least 40 of the 111 seats, a figure many observers consider optimistic. Reliable polls do not exist in Iraqi Kurdistan.

But he said there are concerns about vote-rigging in favour of the Kurdistani list.

“It is important that the people do not feel that they were cheated, that it was a clear and fair election,” Rahim said.

He said Change plans to call for calm regardless of the results, but predicted that violence may break out if supporters believe that the election was rigged.

“We will try to stop them if we can, but they might not listen to us,” he said.

“This is a spontaneous movement,” he added, “it’s not organised.”

Fazil Omar, a Kurdistani list spokesman, said the coalition will not “try to win elections illegitimately” and will accept the results.

“We don’t think that a civil war will break out,” said Abdulsattar Majid, a Service and Reform list candidate, “but if people are neglected and not allowed to express themselves, some incidents may occur.”

The KRG’s security forces – which some believe are loyal to the ruling parties – have said they will remain neutral.

Sulaimaniyah’s riot police have been out in force, particularly at night when supporters take to the streets and a few skirmishes have been reported.

Change supporters and journalists claimed they were beaten by the KRG’s minister of defence, Jaffar Mustafa, and his guards earlier this month. An investigative judge ordered a warrant for Mustafa’s arrest, but he has not been taken into custody.

Mustafa denied that he was involved. At a news conference following the incident, he accused Change supporters of stoning a Kurdistani list campaign office.

This week, security sources said shots were fired after a heated argument erupted between Change and Kurdistani list loyalists, wounding one person. The incident followed a Kurdistani list rally in Sulaimaniyah led by Barzani, according to security sources.

Change leaders also said they called off rallies last week in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah because they were told security could not be guaranteed.

Dana Ahmad Majeed, governor of Sulaimaniyah, said at a news conference that forces from the central Iraqi government will not be brought to the region for the poll, asserting that Kurdish forces can handle security.

He predicted that the election “will be a great success for the Kurds if people participate and calm prevails”.

Azeez Mahmood is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran
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