Iraq's Jan. 31 provincial elections have been hailed as a sign that the country is putting its violent past behind it, is moving toward democracy and no longer is in need of a large U.S. military force. Along a 300-mile strip of disputed territory that stretches across northern Iraq, however, the elections have rekindled the longstanding hostility between Sunni Muslim Arabs and Sunni Kurds, and there are growing fears that war could erupt.
Al Hadbaa, an Arab nationalist party with some Kurdish and other members that vowed to retake disputed territory from the Kurdish security forces; halt Kurdish expansion and eject Kurdish militias, won 47 percent of the vote in predominantly Arab Nineveh, according to the preliminary election results. That means the Kurds will lose control of the provincial council.
The provincial elections also cost the Kurds their place as Iraq's kingmakers. Their main ally in advocating a loose federal system of semi-autonomous Kurdish, Shiite and Sunni regions, the Shiite Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, lost power in all the southern provinces it once controlled.
Kurdish parties have installed security forces well south of the United Nations Green Line that's delineated Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region since 1991. Now Goran promises to seal the borders of the disputed areas of Nineveh if the central government and provincial forces start pressuring the Kurds to relinquish some of the turf they've seized from Arabs since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship.
"There is coldness in the region, and I am in the middle," said Goran, who's also the head of the KDP in Nineveh. "With al Hadbaa, there will be a problem, and the province will break. . . . If there is pressure on the Kurds, we will stay in our own region and not allow any interference."
"They will actually try to draw a new green line," said Joost Hiltermann, the deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "Kurds have been strong since 2003, and now they're not as strong and they've somewhat overreached. The question is: Are they going to concede some things or are they going to fight over this?"
"Violence could happen for sure," Hiltermann said. "Eventually, the strongest is going to win. The question is, who is the strongest? The Kurds have pushed the bridge too far, and they don't have the power to realize it."
The Kurds won't back down first though. Not after decades of domination and oppression by the central Iraqi government.