Sunnis swallow their pride to campaign for Kurdish support

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The Independent Online

Unlike many Sunnis, Mohammad Khalil is taking the Iraqi elections very seriously. Mr Khalil lives in Kirkuk, in the oil-rich northern province of Tamin, a city that many Kurds believe will soon form part of a largely autonomous region.

Unlike many Sunnis, Mohammad Khalil is taking the Iraqi elections very seriously. Mr Khalil lives in Kirkuk, in the oil-rich northern province of Tamin, a city that many Kurds believe will soon form part of a largely autonomous region.

The Iraqi Republican Gathering, the Sunni party for which Mr Khalil will stand in provincial council elections on Sunday - the same day as the national poll - is passionately campaigning to prevent that outcome.

In a town where the red, white and green flag of "Kurdistan" is not difficult to find, the Sunni slogan is "Kirkuk for all Iraqis". According to Mr Khalil: "Going to vote will benefit our people."

The battle for control of Kirkuk has become so intense that the Muslim Scholars Association, the block of Sunni clergy who have called for a boycott of the national vote on Sunday, have ordered their followers to take part in the Kirkuk provincial elections in order to counter the Kurdish vote.

But another local Sunni group, the 24-member United Arab Front, said yesterday it was pulling out of the poll on the grounds that Kurds displaced under Saddam's regime would be allowed to participate.

Whatever their turnout, Sunni voters will have their work cut out as more than 200,000 displaced Kurds have registered. Many were forced out by the Sunni-led government in Baghdad, which re-populated the city with Arabs.

The ethnic mix - Kirkuk also contains a Turkoman minority - makes the city volatile ground ahead of the poll. Leaders of the semi-autonomous Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk threw in their lot with the Americans and now want Kirkuk included as part of a federal state. The stakes are high. The province yields 40 per cent of Iraq's oil and 70 per cent of its petroleum products.

But the passions aroused by the poll are already proving volatile. Hana al-Sawaf, of the Iraqi Republican Gathering, said: "We don't object to the original people of Kirkuk returning. We object to people coming here who are not from here and squatting in buildings."

Ishraq Hassan Ali, who is married to a Kurd who fought against Saddam, said: "These people are coming back and squatting as their houses have been stolen and they've been kicked off their land. Where were Arabs when Kurdish children were fleeing Saddam's wrath and froze to death in the snow?"

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