Kirkuk and the Iraqi election

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Nearly 1.5 million Iraqis living abroad have begun casting their votes in parliamentary elections, people in Iraq itself will vote on Sunday. The northern city of Kirkuk is ground zero for a potential conflict following the planned US withdrawal: the struggle between Arabs and Kurds over a large part of the country's north. In his second story from Kirkuk, reporter Ben Gilbert looks at the role Kirkuk plays in the Iraq vote.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. Iraq holds a key Parliamentary vote on Sunday. The outcome will determine who controls the government in Baghdad as U.S. troops continue to prepare for withdrawal. Militants have tried to derail the run up to the vote with several deadly attacks and there could be more violence this weekend. But today, voting began for Iraqis living outside the country. Turnout was reported to be high among the many Sunni Iraqis now in Syria and Jordan. Sunni Arabs enjoyed a privileged status under Saddam Hussein. Other groups resented that. Since the war Shiites and Kurds have dominated at the ballot box and the Sunnis resent that. The northern city of Kirkuk sits right on the fault line that divides Iraq's many religious and ethnic groups. Ben Gilbert reports on what Sunday's vote looks like from there.

BEN GILBERT: The ethnically mixed and volatile city of Kirkuk is divided between Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen with a sprinkling of Christians. In the past violence has flared between Kurds and Turkmen or Arabs, but now there's an added element; a new Kurdish political party called Goran, or change. Campaign anthems blare from loudspeakers on Kirkuk streets. Campaign posters have plastered the walls here since about a second after campaigning officially began last month. The new party, Change, is up against two large traditional Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP. Those two fought violent civil wars against each other in the 1980's and 90's. Jalal Jawri was once a fighter for the PUK. Now he's the head of the Change party in Kirkuk. He says the new party will do away with the corrupt, rigid ways of the old parties.

INTERPRETER: Those groups, especially the PUK, they have a mentality, a way of thinking that doesn't allow the others to be in the political process with them. They only want to control everything by themselves. So that's why they're tearing down our posters, intimidating people and telling them to stop trying to be in politics.

GILBERT: Raffat Hamarash, the PUK leader in Kirkuk, and Jowri's cousin, denies targeting the Change party supporters or political advertising. He says his party has been the victim of intimidation and vandalism coming from the Change party's ranks. But despite the tensions, he says Kurds will not fight against each other again. There will be no bloodshed between the Kurds, Hamarash said. The Kurd had a very hard time in the past. The whole leadership has decided not to repeat this experience because what happened in the past is considered shameful and it will not happen again. But even if Kurds back away from violence, tensions are high here. Last week tempers flared when a Turkman politician narrowly escaped assassination in downtown Kirkuk. Arshaat Asalahee, head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front in Kirkuk says the Kurd were to blame.

ARSHAAT ASALAHEE: They wanted to strike down the powerful voice of the Turkmen, especially the Turkmen Front. One was the assassination program and then they attacked the Turkmen Front headquarters but we were wise and dealt with the situation in a wise way to contain the problem.

GILBERT: But the fix may be only temporary. Kurds claim Northern Iraq and Kirkuk as their ancestral homeland. They were kicked out of the oil rich region by Saddam Hussein in an effort to Arabize the city. The Kurds have returned but the status of Kirkuk is still undecided. The Iraqi Constitution requires that a referendum be held to determine Kirkuk's status, but it keeps getting put off. The Turkmen politician Arshaat Asalahee says an eventual vote could cause civil war.

ASALAHEE: This could lead us into a hurricane and the Americans are giving the impression that they are backing the Kurds up in their quest to have Kirkuk included in Kurdistan.

GILBERT: Asalahee, wants a transitional shared government responsible for Kirkuk until demographic and property issues can be determined. Rafaat Hamarash, the PUK leader in Kirkuk says he still envisions a day when Kirkuk is part of a state called Kurdistan, but realizes it's not possible now.

INTERPRETER: We believe that the current circumstances in Iraq allow for returning Kirkuk to the Kurdistan regional government and creating an independent state. But let's think about that. If we're going to do that, then we see Kurdistan bordered by Iran, Turkey and Syria. Doing this would be suicide.

GILBERT: For now, U.S. troops are acting as peacemakers in the Kurd on Kurd and Kurd versus Arab, or Turkmen disputes. They patrol the streets with Iraqi police and Iraqi soldiers. Colonel Larry Swift with the First Brigade of the First Armored Division says things are looking good for Sunday's elections.

COLONEL LARRY SWIFT: There's a very competent Police Force and a very competent Army doing great things every day to keep it that way and right now we're really an enabler for them.

GILBERT: But that could change quickly depending on the election results. It's widely believed that U.S. combat troops will stay in Kirkuk and the surrounding areas longer than any others in Iraq; possibly well beyond the September deadline President Obama has outlined. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert in Kirkuk, Northern Iraq.