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Ballots, Not Bullets, for Iraqi City

A U.S. general wins over skeptics, and now Mosul prepares for its first postwar election.

May 04, 2003|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

MOSUL, Iraq — Maj. Gen. David Petraeus was fresh from battling north through much of Iraq 11 days ago when he walked straight into the minefield of Iraqi politics.

His soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division took control of Mosul just days after U.S. Army Special Forces and Marines killed at least 12 Iraqi civilians during two days of unrest in the city center, apparently sparked by a local power struggle.

Petraeus then turned a city on the verge of a bloodbath into one preparing for an election on Monday, the first postwar vote of its kind in a major Iraqi city. He did it by convincing local leaders who have never known democracy that it's better to be on the inside talking, and compromising, than outside shouting and throwing rocks.

The plan calls for a convention of 217 delegates, representing various ethnic, religious, tribal and political groups, to choose a 23-member city council to govern Mosul until Iraq has its first free elections, Petraeus said.

The city council will elect a mayor from among four candidates cleared by the U.S. military after background checks confirm they don't have blood on their hands from service in Saddam Hussein's regime.

"There's reaching out across the table," Petraeus said before one of many meetings with contenders for power last week. "And it's not just people who cut a deal in a back room. It's self-correcting."

Without a break, Petraeus and his troops have gone from fighting a war to the "nation building" that the U.S. military normally loathes. Soldiers trained to hit the enemy hard and fast from above are suddenly mediating heated Iraqi political disputes in the looted remains of the Mosul governor's building.

Petraeus, 50, seems to relish the challenge. The tough-as-nails soldier is also cerebral, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point who earned a doctorate in international relations from Princeton University.

So far, the combination has proved a charm in Mosul, a 6,000-year-old city that has a centuries-old tradition of producing top military officers.

Each day since he took charge of one of Iraq's most complex, and potentially dangerous, cities, Petraeus has sat and mediated with local politicians, tribal chiefs, religious leaders and even some former members of Hussein's toppled regime.

He has won over skeptics, including Arab nationalists who insisted that they would boycott what they saw as a U.S. plot to install a puppet administration. The followers of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, known as Nasserites, now say they will send delegates to Monday's vote.

Petraeus immediately calmed tensions in Mosul by ordering soldiers to be more low-key than the Marines, who antagonized many in the city by flying large American flags from their vehicles. Then he called Mosul's main political rivals together and persuaded them to begin getting along.

"We are trying to shape something close to real democracy," said Ayad Hamdany, who leads one of three main factions that were locked in a dangerous power struggle when the 101st Airborne arrived. He refers to Petraeus with respect as "the American leader."

"For history, I should mention that the American leader made a great effort to reach our goal," Hamdany said. "He was very patient and tolerated our differences."

Petraeus has experience dealing with lethal political systems. He helped prepare Haiti and Bosnia-Herzegovina for elections after U.S.-led troops restored peace.

He is now in charge of one of Iraq's most difficult cities, where almost everything is disputed, even the size of the population. Mosul is officially Iraq's third-largest city, but it claims to be the second-largest, and has anywhere from 2 million to 4 million people.

The majority is Arab, from the Sunni Muslim minority that dominated Iraq under Hussein. Mosul also has large minorities of Kurds, Christian Assyrians and ethnic Turks.

Two main Kurdish factions -- the Democratic Party of Kurdistan and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan -- wield significant power through their Arab proxies.

On their own, few Arab leaders can match the money and connections the Kurdish factions built up during 12 years of self-rule after Hussein's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But many among Mosul's Arab majority resent the Kurdish factions, which they blame for widespread looting after Hussein's forces abandoned the city.

The Kurds' history of infighting is also seen as a long-term liability. They fought a four-year civil war, and though they have bottled up their animosities under U.S. pressure, they also have been stockpiling heavy weapons seized from the Iraqi army.

If either Kurdish side feels cheated, there is a risk that they might fight again, this time drawing Arab allies into a broader conflict.

"All I will say is I think we know what we're dealing with here," Petraeus said, confirming that the Kurdish factions "are playing a prominent role behind the scenes.

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