MOSUL, IRAQ — For decades, Arab soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas battled by gun, by mortar, by rocket. Now, elections are the latest weapon in the struggle for land and power in Iraq's north.
The ballot box has become a battleground in Nineveh province, a high-stakes combat zone where Kurds and Arabs will face off over the future shape of the country -- and confront each other over the past. The outcome could set the stage for another round of violence, which both sides insist that they do not want.
"In the last few years, almost 2,000 Kurds have been killed in Mosul," Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani told The Times this month. "We have not responded in the same manner and we have not reacted in any act of vengeance; but of course everything will have its limits."
The rival ethnicities are grappling with the legacy of Saddam Hussein's policy of displacing Kurds to create an Arab majority here. Whereas the Kurds believe they are correcting a historical wrong, Arabs see humiliation. They accuse the Kurds of harassment, arbitrary arrests and torture in the run-up to the election Saturday.
How the struggle plays out here, where Arabs clearly outnumber Kurds, will go a long way toward determining the outcome in other disputed territories, such as the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, where no side has such an outright majority.
"If these problems are not solved, there will be some extremism here in [Nineveh], on the Kurdish side and Arab side," Deputy Gov. Kharso Goran warned, sitting in his riverside office in the provincial capital, Mosul, flanked by the flags of Iraq, Kurdistan and his Kurdistan Democratic Party.
The Kurds have governed their own region, Kurdistan, since 1991 and have pushed to expand the area to include the northern and eastern belt around Mosul and the Sinjar region of western Nineveh. That has exacerbated Kurdish-Arab tensions, which U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker recently labeled one of the emerging challenges of the year.
"The people of these areas do not want to belong to Kurdistan," said Sheik Abdullah Humaidi Yawar, a senior leader in Hadba, a Sunni Arab nationalist movement. Yawar is considered the front-runner in the Nineveh election.
"They want to stay included in Nineveh," he said. "The Kurdish parties have proven to the people for the last five years that they are racist like the former regime."
The Sunni Arabs are playing catch-up after their boycott of U.S.-sponsored elections in 2005 handed the Kurds control of Nineveh. The Kurds used the last four years to cement their grip on the disputed areas in northern Nineveh bordering Kurdistan, with a sizable presence of Kurdish border guards, intelligence officers and Kurdish-dominated Iraqi army units.
The Kurds had hoped to formalize the new reality in a constitutionally mandated referendum, designated to settle the fate of similarly contested areas across Iraq, including Kirkuk. But the date for the referendum expired a year ago, and with it the Kurds' opportunity to quickly seize what they believe is rightfully theirs.
Now both Baghdad and local Arabs appear intent on beating back the Kurds, through a mix of intimidation, negotiation and show of force.
"When we have the ability to protect these areas, we will ask Kurdistan to leave them," said Yahya Abdul Majoud of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is considered the less extreme Sunni faction in the north. "If they agree or not, it's not the Kurds' choice," he said, adding that the Iraqi army should replace Kurdish units in Nineveh in six months to a year.
Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has already put his weight behind Nineveh's Arabs. He has started trying to purge the two Iraqi army divisions in Nineveh of Kurdish officers, who have been accused of working for Kurdish ambitions, Kurdish officials say.
Since the summer, Nineveh's security command, which reports to Maliki, has twice threatened to forcibly evict Goran from his Kurdistan Democratic Party offices in east Mosul.
The Kurdish political parties are sure to not go quietly. They warn that an aggressive campaign to dislodge them from the disputed territories and marginalize them in Nineveh politics has the potential to spark serious confrontations. If Baghdad backs the hard-line Arab nationalists, Goran said, "there will be a problem between Kurdistan and the central government."
Goran has a visceral dislike of Hadba, which exemplifies the new nationalist wave. He accuses the movement of having ties to the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and Hussein's Baath Party. Hadba is headed by Atheel Najafi, scion of an old Mosul family, famed breeders of Arabian horses who once sold and raced horses with Hussein's sons Uday and Qusai.
Najafi and his colleagues regularly accuse Kurdish army units of torturing detainees and hint that the Kurdistan Democratic Party has plotted at least one assassination attempt against a Hadba candidate. Najafi vows to force Kurdish troops to withdraw from the disputed territories.