For the past week, U.S. and Iraqi forces in the northern city of Mosul have been raiding houses and arresting suspects in an effort to wipe out remnants of an insurgency that has made the city the most violent in Iraq.
At least eight American soldiers have been killed in Mosul in the past month, and insurgents regularly target Iraqi soldiers, police and civilians with bombs and assassinations.
Last month's provincial election shifted the balance of political power in Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province, but the change could bring long-simmering tensions between the region's Arabs and Kurds to the boiling point.
In the late afternoon, traffic in Iraq's second-largest city is steady, but the mood is tense. Iraqi soldiers and police man checkpoints from behind concrete and sandbag barriers, as American patrols file by in heavily armored trucks. The drive to the city center reveals a dreary succession of shabby buildings and wary people hurrying to get their business done before dark.
The tension extends to the heavily guarded headquarters of al-Hadba'a, the Sunni Arab party that won a substantial majority of seats on the provincial council. The atmosphere is not triumphant; it's defensive. Atheel al-Najaifi, the party leader, is bracing himself for a political battle with the region's Kurds.
Najaifi says that, with 19 of the council's 37 seats, he doesn't need a coalition, but he's open to an alliance with the Kurds, providing that they address four long-standing disputes.
The issues involve: Arab detainees in Kurdish prisons; Arabs displaced from Kurdish areas; defining Nineveh province's borders; and stopping what Najaifi says is the imposition of Kurdish culture on children in Nineveh schools. These issues — especially the border question — are a microcosm of the larger disputes between the semiautonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north and the Iraqi central government.
Khasro Goran, a Kurd, is a deputy governor in the outgoing administration, which was dominated by Kurds. He says Najaifi's conditions are a sign that he's not interested in sharing power. But the Kurds and their allies got 12 seats on the new council, and Goran says that gives them a substantial stake in the government.
Najaifi's Hadba'a party won its majority on a strong anti-Kurdish platform. Its central plank was the claim that Kurds in Mosul are advancing the agenda of the government in the semiautonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been seeking to extend its boundaries to areas it claims are traditionally Kurdish. That includes the oil-rich area around Kirkuk and rich agricultural lands in Nineveh province.
Najaifi says he can work with the Kurds if they stick with local issues, but he says there will be no way to agree if they try to push what he calls "outside interests" — that is, the interests of Kurdistan.
The Kurdish leader, Goran, says Najaifi is pushing a nationalist Arab agenda by insisting on resolving conflicts that can't really be handled at the provincial level anyway. Goran says the two sides should form a government first, then discuss the most divisive issues, but his distrust of the Arab leader is palpable. Goran says Najaifi's real intention is to get rid of the Kurds in Mosul, a plan that he rejects. Goran says he fears that the dispute could be a flashpoint for open conflict between the two sides.
As Iraqi and U.S. forces continue their effort to root out al-Qaida cells and insurgents in Mosul, the two sides also dispute the value of the American role. That question will become even more critical in June, when, by agreement with the Iraqi government, the Americans are supposed to pull back from the cities. Iraqi forces will have to hold their own in disputed areas such as Mosul.
The Kurds overwhelmingly still regard the Americans as friends and liberators.
Najaifi says that's because the Americans have unfairly sided with the Kurds from the beginning. He says the Americans' role since the invasion has been negative, because they were always listening to the Kurds. Even now, he says, the American presence does more to stir up resistance than it does to bring peace. With a Sunni-led administration in Mosul, he says the way to deal with Sunni insurgents is by negotiation, not force.
Goran says the problem stems from Kurdish history with the Arabs. "A lot of the Kurds are afraid that the Iraqi government will be strong again," he says, "and they will send troops to [the] north, and they will take over, as they did several times during the past 80 years."
Old fears and enmities still dominate the Arab-Kurdish relationship in the north. In the meantime, Mosul's needs go unmet by its local government.
At dusk, the city begins to close down. The shops close and the streets empty as people hurry to the safety of their homes before dark. Mosul still looks much as Baghdad did — during the worst of times.