Election campaigning in the multi-ethnic province of Kirkuk is causing tension in the disputed territory. Campaigners have come to blows, local police have put a curfew on electioneering and analysts warn of more bloodshed to come. After all, they say, in Kirkuk this isn't just about getting elected. It's about who really owns this troubled province.
Kirkuk is one of Iraq's "disputed territories" and home to a number of different ethnicities, all of whom want to claim the city as wholly theirs. The current election campaign, which started officially last week, is just underlining and emphasizing those tensions, splitting a multi-ethnic populace that usually lives together comparatively peacefully, even further apart.
Tensions between political candidates have led to physical violence between supporters and caused the local police to set a curfew on campaigning -- it must now cease at 9pm nightly. And election officials say they're expecting the overly competitive campaigning to cause further trouble.
"The danger of more bloodshed is very real," local elections analyst, Rahman Ghafour, told NIQASH. "What is happening is that candidates are fighting a war over Kirkuk's identity through this election. They are pulling out all the stops to win votes and to prove whether Kirkuk is a Kurdish, Arab or Turkmen city. Wise heads need to stop these conflicts from getting worse," he warns.
Clearly many of the candidates seem to believe that the future designation of Kirkuk -- is it an Iraqi city or a Kurdish one? -- is at stake. And it's for this reason that the competition between the different political parties is so intense.
Security forces have taken note: there have already been an estimated 15 people injured during the first week of campaigning. As a result Kirkuk's police chiefs have decided that election campaigning may begin at 8am but it must have stopped by 9pm in the evening.
"We don't want political parties to campaign at night -- they might confront each other," Kirkuk police chief Jamal Tahir told NIQASH. "There have already been some confrontations between party members and weapons were used."
"If there are any acts of provocation or any inappropriate reactions, those parties involved will be penalised," insists Farhad Talabani, head of the local office of the Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, the body tasked with running Iraq's elections.
The situation is due to the fact that Kirkuk is one of what are best described as Iraq's "disputed territories". That is, despite the fact that Kirkuk is outside the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdish say they have historic rights to the city. The government in Baghdad disputes this, saying Kirkuk belongs to Iraq proper.
Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution set up a framework for resolving this issue, through three main tasks (see box).
But the deadline for the implementation of Article 140 passed several years ago and those three main steps don't look likely to be taken anytime soon. So the different political parties connected to the ethnic groups in the area have found their own way to claim that they control the city -- and that is based on how many votes each of them gets.
There have been no local elections held in Kirkuk since the provincial elections in 2005; the city delayed last year's provincial elections, which are held to elect members of local authorities. In 2005's provincial elections though, Iraqi Kurdish political parties won almost 60 percent of the votes and they still hold the majority of senior administrative posts in local government.
The last general elections that Kirkuk participated in -- along with the rest of the country - were held in 2010. Out of the 12 seats allocated to the province in Baghdad's Parliament, the Iraqi Kurdish parties won six, while the province's Sunni Muslim Arabs won four and those Iraqis of Turkmen ethnicity won two. Kirkuk's Christian voters were able to secure one of the special quota of seats for Christians.
Iraq's election overseers, IHEC, report that 80 percent of Kirkuk's eligible voters -- there are around 83,000 of them -- have now received their electronic voting cards. This makes Kirkuk the most successful at distributing the cards.
And as election campaigning officially began last week, the tension between the different parties - all of whom want to show their influence over the disputed province -- was already clear.
Iraqi Kurdish political parties are using the slogan "The Kurdish Kirkuk" while local Arab parties are countering with their own slogan: "Kirkuk Is An Iraqi City". Turkmen parties are simply promising they will make Kirkuk a more independent province if they win.
Their party, the Turkmen Front, which won two seats in Baghdad after the last general elections, is determined to prove that Turkmen are the second most populous group in Kirkuk. Their current political representation makes them look as though they are the third most, after the Iraqi Kurdish and the local Arabs.
"We won't join any other coalition because we want to show how popular we are," Turkmen MP, Arshad al-Salihi, who heads the party, told NIQASH. "If there's no election fraud then we expect to double our number of seats. And in the future we're going to focus on Kirkuk's independence."
Even though some local Arab groups have said the elections in Kirkuk should be delayed because of issues with local security, Arab politicians from Kirkuk remain optimistic. "The party headed by Prime Minister [Nouri] al-Maliki is also trying to win a seat in this area," explains Omar Khalaf Jawad, who heads the Arab parties competing in Kirkuk. "So there's more of a chance that we can achieve an Arab majority in the province."
Part of Jawad's party's platform is the insistence that Kirkuk is an Iraqi city and that Arab politicians won't give up on that. The party is also against the establishment of independent regions in the country.
Meanwhile Kirkuk's Iraqi Kurdish are intent on retaining their parliamentary power. Of the two major Iraqi Kurdish political parties -- the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP -- it was the PUK that won five out of six seats at the last general elections. However, the PUK has been losing a lot of support lately and in the elections held in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013, it dropped from its traditional second-most-popular place to third. It lost many voters to the KDP.
"The PUK wants to be first again," says Asso Mamand, a senior member of the party responsible for campaigning in Kirkuk. "And we are working hard to achieve that goal. We believe we'll be able to keep the seats we gained in past elections and in fact, we think we can even get more seats."