MOSUL, Iraq, (AP) – In the last major urban battlefield in the fight between U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents, a Sunni party opposed to both Kurdish influence and the American military presence has emerged as the likely big winner in provincial voting.
That could heighten the ethnic tensions between Sunnis and Kurds that the U.S. military believes has helped sustain the insurgency here, while it has largely collapsed in most of the country.
Official results from Saturday’s vote for the government of Ninevah province have not been released.
But an Iraqi official familiar with the count said the National Hadba Gathering was leading with about 370,000 votes of the 900,000 ballots cast — or about 40 percent. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the results are not yet certified.
If those results are confirmed, the party would gain a major role in the government of province which includes Mosul, the country’s third largest city.
The strong showing could also set the stage for further tension between Arabs, who make up 60 percent of the province’s population, and the Kurds.
The party, which the Kurds claim includes former Saddam Hussein loyalists with links to insurgents, was formed in 2006 with the avowed goal of ending the rule of Kurdish parties, which won control because Sunni Arabs largely boycotted the last regional balloting in January 2005.
Party candidates tapped into Sunni complaints of ineffective government and resentment over Kurdish efforts to incorporate parts of the province into their self-governing region which borders Ninevah.
Sunnis saw the election as an informal referendum on Kurdish territorial ambitions.
Control of the provincial council would allow Arabs to appoint a governor and try to roll back Kurdish expansion, which began soon after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The Kurdish autonomous government was allied with the U.S. against Saddam and sent its fighters into areas of Ninevah and other provinces that border the Kurdish region.
“Hadba should halt the role of Kurdish forces,” said Ziad Khalid, a 32-year-old clerk at Mosul University. “That will lead to the end of violence in the province and the defeat of al-Qaida as well.”
Mahdi Herky, a Kurdish council member seeking re-election, expressed confidence the vote would show support for the Kurdish regional government.
“There’s good evidence these places belong to the KRG,” he said. “We expect some tension. But we expect there will be understanding.”
U.S. military officials believe al-Qaida and other insurgent groups have exploited Sunni bitterness over the Kurds to build a support base in Mosul.
But the bitter ethnic tone of the campaign could produce a whole new set of problems.
Last year, the provincial government briefly shut down a radio station linked to the Hadba party for allegedly “sowing sedition and fueling tension” between Arabs and Kurds, who maintain their own armed force known as the peshmerga.
Kurdish fighters have been guarding contested parts of the province, setting up checkpoints and flying the flags of the self-ruled Kurdistan Regional Government atop many buildings.
With all signs pointing to victory, Hadba leader Atheel al-Nujaifi called on the Kurds to give up their territorial ambitions.
“People want to change the situation in the province,” he said in a telephone interview. “I guess violence will be halted except the areas that are under the Kurdish control, because this needs a Kurdish political decision to abandon their gains in this area.”
Al-Nujaifi said he expected opposition from the Kurds “but they can’t affect our work.”
“The Kurdish leadership should learn how to deal with the new situation and consider the Arabs after these elections,” he said.