Ethnic Rivalries Heat Up Iraqi Election Campaigns
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
After the invasion of Iraq, the national army became part of the problem after it was disbanded by the Americans and many disillusioned soldiers joined the insurgency. Now, fighting for reelection, Iraqs prime minister has announced he would reinstate thousands of officers from Saddam Husseins army. The gambit may pay off by widening the political base of Nouri al-Maliki. Meanwhile, in this parliamentary election, Iraqs ethnic rivalries have created tension. And in the middle of all this, the United States is trying to stay out of it.
Were joined by NPRs Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence to talk about all of this. Hello.
QUIL LAWRENCE: Hello, there.
MONTAGNE: Would Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki get a great deal of political mileage by inviting back officers from Saddam Hussein's army?
LAWRENCE: Observers on the ground are saying that Maliki's doing a little bit of damage control. He lost, probably, some Sunni Arab voters during this crisis we had over de-Baathification. There was a committee in the Iraqi parliament that was taking all these names of people who they said were involved with Saddam Hussein's former Baath Party and disqualifying them, about 500 of them, from running in the election.
And Maliki couldn't really disagree with that because it would look like he was siding with the former regime. So in order to perhaps try and win some of those votes back, he's announced 20,000 officers from the old army will be reinstated.
But as a retaliation, that same de-Baathification committee in parliament has announced that they're going to disqualify almost 500 serving officers in the army and police.
MONTAGNE: Now one thing that American officials who are trying to stay out of this, you know, but they have long worried about Arab-Kurdish tension in Iraq. Are you seeing those tensions coming out in the election?
LAWRENCE: Absolutely. It's almost part of the campaign, particularly in the province of Ninawa, the capital of which is Mosul, in the north of Iraq. There is an extremely - well, an Arab nationalist governor up there, and he won his election, essentially, by stoking ethnic tensions, and we had the same thing break out last month. Governor Atheel al-Najafi decided to take a trip into one of the disputed territories near the city of Mosul.
He has every right to go there legally. He's the governor of the province, but he certainly knew that he would be going through a Kurdish town. It's sort of like the Nazi march through Skokie, Illinois, if you ask the Kurds about it. It's extremely inflammatory.
MONTAGNE: And Skokie, of course, many of its citizens had survived the Holocaust.
LAWRENCE: Exactly. Exactly. That would be the way the Kurds would interpret this. When the governor came through, there were people who greeted him with eggs and tomatoes, and he says that there was even an assassination attempt. His bodyguards grabbed 11 people from the crowd, arrested them and took them all the way back to Mosul.
The Kurdish government claimed that this was kidnapping, and in turn, they detained a number of people - it turned out to be about eight in the end. And it was this standoff where both sides claimed that they had a judicial process, that they had a complaint against these people, the other side each saying no, that you've taken hostages. And it took an entire month with extremely furious diplomatic activity on the part of the Americans and other governments. They finally had what really amounts to a hostage exchange last Thursday at the Mosul airport. It took six hours.
And the funny thing is, I think both sides will probably gain politically and solidify their base through that entire affair.
MONTAGNE: And then, Quil, amid all this high drama, there's also regular campaigning, right, that any American would recognize?
LAWRENCE: Yeah. You might recognize it more as a campaign from the 1930s, something in America. People are handing out gifts. There's even been people handing out guns, weapons monographed with a party insignia. But the fact that there are a lot of posters, billboards - there's more television ads and billboards than there are actual campaign events and rallies because of the security situation here, and everyone's trying to look pretty.
There's even - some people have been Photoshopping their pictures for these billboards. One famous TV presenter here who is considered so attractive by most Iraqi drivers that it's been causing big traffic jams around the billboards, and even some traffic outside her campaign posters.
But anyhow, what's encouraging is that it seems to be an election that's being hard fought, but mostly just through peaceful and normal political means.
MONTAGNE: Quil, thank you very much.
LAWRENCE: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Quil Lawrence, speaking to us from Baghdad.
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