Shift In Power Heightens Tensions In Iraqi City Last month's provincial election shifted the balance of power in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and the surrounding Nineveh province. The change could bring long-simmering tensions between the region's Arabs and Kurds to the boiling point.
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Shift In Power Heightens Tensions In Iraqi City

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Shift In Power Heightens Tensions In Iraqi City

Shift In Power Heightens Tensions In Iraqi City

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

This morning at Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, President Obama pledged to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by August of 2010. Until then, he said, there is still much work to be done.

President BARACK OBAMA: Iraq is not yet secure and there will be difficult days ahead. Violence will continue to be a part of life in Iraq.

NORRIS: Nowhere is that more true than Mosul, the most violent city in Iraq. This week, U.S. and Iraqi forces have been raiding houses and arresting suspects, part of a new effort to wipe out remnants of a stubborn regional insurgency.

January's provincial elections shifted the balance of power there. And as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, that could bring long-simmering tensions between Arabs and Kurds to a boiling point.

(Soundbite of traffic)

COREY FLINTOFF: In the late afternoon, traffic in Iraq's second largest city is steady, but the mood is tense. Iraqi soldiers and policeman 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.

This is the heavily guarded headquarters of al-Hadba'a, the Sunni Arab party that won a substantial majority of seats on the provincial council in January's elections. But the atmosphere here is not triumphant, it's defensive.

Atheel al-Najaifi, the party leader, is bracing himself for a political battle with the region's Kurds, who control the outgoing council.

Mr. ATHEEL AL-NAJAIFI (Al-Hadba'a Party): (Speaking Foreign Language)

FLINTOFF: Najaifi says that with 19 seats on the 37-member council, he doesn't need a coalition. But he's open to an alliance with the Kurds, providing that they address some long-standing disputes. The issues include defining the borders of Nineveh Province. It's an issue that makes Nineveh a microcosm of the larger disputes between the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq's north and the Iraqi central government.

The leader of the Kurdish group here says those Arab demands are non-starters.

Mr. KHASRO GORAN (Kurdish Deputy Governor): (Speaking foreign Language)

Khasro Goran, a Kurd, is a deputy governor in the outgoing administration. 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, claiming that Kurds in Mosul are advancing the agenda of the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been seeking to extend its boundaries to areas such as oil-rich Kirkuk and agricultural lands in Nineveh Province.

Mr. AL-NAJAIFI: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Najaifi says he can work with the Kurds if they stick to 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, Khasro Goran, says Najaifi is pushing a nationalist Arab agenda.

Mr. GORAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: 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.

Mr. GORAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Goran says Najaifi's real intention is to get rid of the Kurds in Mosul. He says he fears that the dispute could be a flashpoint for open conflict between the two sides.

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 American forces are supposed to pull back from Iraqi cities and 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.

Mr. AL-NAJAIFI: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: 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. When asked for his view of the real nut of the problem, Khasro Goran switches into English.

Mr. GORAN: Still, a lot of Kurds here are afraid that the Iraqi government will be strong again and they will send their troops to north, and they will take over, as they did several times during last 80 years.

(Soundbite of traffic)

FLINTOFF: Old fears and enmities still dominate the Arab-Kurdish relationship in the north. In the meantime, the needs of Mosul go unmet by its local government.

At dusk, the city begins to shut 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.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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