Violence taints election in Iraq’s Kurdistan region

Iraqi Kurdistan — Narges was exhausted but was looking forward to finishing her last hour of work at the Dark Blue Cafe next to Zargata Hill (The Hill) on May 12. Dozens of young men and women were sitting in the cafe smoking shisha and chatting about the preliminary election results that were just coming out. A group of diners was celebrating a friend’s birthday. The vibe inside the cafe was jubilant; outside, however, constant celebratory gunfire echoing around the city was causing consternation among the public.

Over 10 million Iraqis voted in the first national election following the defeat of the Islamic State. As the preliminary results came out, the opposition parties in the Kurdistan region soon realized that they had lost the election and that the two ruling parties in Kurdistan had surprisingly gained more seats. Many had expected that these two parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), would be punished hard by the electorate for bringing misery to the Kurdistan region after going ahead with the ill-fated referendum for independence as well as for the mismanagement of the economy and rampant corruption.

The Hill is home to the Change Movement (Gorran) headquarters, one of the main opposition parties in the Kurdistan region.

Just after 10 p.m., Narges saw a convoy of five peshmerga pickup trucks with heavy machine guns mounted on them pass by the cafe heading toward the entrance of the Gorran headquarters, where representatives of four opposition parties were meeting.

Allegations of fraud soon aired from opposition TV channels, fueling tensions in Sulaimaniyah as PUK supporters celebrated with gunfire and tracers lit up the sky.

KNN, the Gorran main mouthpiece, accused the PUK of committing fraud. One senior PUK commander, Sheikh Jafar Sheikh Mustafa, a former peshmerga minister, made an angry phone call and spoke with two senior Gorran officials, demanding that they silence their TV channel and accept defeat, and threatening to attack their headquarters if they don’t.

As Narges saw the second convoy of around 10 pickup trucks with heavy guns mounted on them going toward the Hill just after 10 p.m., she knew something was about to happen. Suddenly, all hell broke loose as the area around the cafe turned into a battlefield. The peshmerga in the pickup trucks opened fire on the Hill with heavy guns, PKC machine guns and M4 American rifles. The guards at the Hill responded with AK-47 and a PKC machine gun fire. As bullets hit the cafe’s external wall, Narges and around 50 diners ran for cover under the table and into the bathrooms. The first fire from the attacking force hit an electrical cable, plunging the area into darkness. “I was shaking, some people were crying, it was a terrifying experience,” Narges told Al-Monitor. “We just ran to the back rooms and the bathrooms to take cover.”

At the Hill, the representatives of the four opposition parties sitting around a table immediately dropped to the floor and crawled to the back of the building as heavy machine gun fire hit the windows and shattered the walls and pierced furniture.

Terrified residents in the densely populated area around the Hill started fleeing their homes in the darkness. The Turkish guards at the Turkish Consulate near the Hill became alarmed as they saw the battle unfold in front of their eyes and took up positions as shadowy figures raced toward the consulate. A disaster was averted when the Turkish special forces quickly realized the shadowy figures were not gunmen but rather terrified residents fleeing from the area. Among those fleeing their homes was a lawyer who managed to take his children to a relative’s house in another part of the city. Chaos reigned as the peshmerga fighters intensified their attack on the Hill, bringing the city close to the brink of civil war. KNN anchors called on Gorran supporters to defend the Hill. A live video on the Gali Kurdistan Channel, an official outlet of the PUK, appeared to show PUK commander Sheikh Jafar Sheikh Mustafa on air and drunk that night just before the attack.

The fighting continued for around 15 minutes; the attacking force withdrew from the Hill around 10:30 p.m. Al-Monitor observed as several thousand people descended on the Hill within an hour of the attack calling for revenge, with some carrying guns, including PKC machine guns. “Two from our side suffered bullet wounds,” one of the main guards at the gate to the Hill told Al-Monitor. “I think they suffered casualties, too.” Three witnesses said Mustafa led the attack. While what happened the night of May 12 may be seen as a minor incident in the wider Iraqi election, the occurrence is highly significant as it raises serious concerns about the security in the Kurdistan region. But more significantly, the allegations of fraud in this election in the Kurdish area means that many people are questioning their faith in the electoral system. There are calls from the supporters of Gorran on their leadership to be allowed to form armed militias to protect their headquarters and their interest as they lose faith in the security forces allied with the PUK.

Gorran supporters and other opposition parties accuse Iran of stealing their votes. Sulaimaniyah, in particular, and the Kurdistan region, in general, are Iran’s strategic backyard.

Iranians prefer to form long-term relationships with their regional allies and given that both the PUK and the KDP have been in a stable relationship with Iran since the 1980s, Iran sees them as strategic partners, especially after both parties accepted that they had made a mistake in going ahead with the ill-fated referendum for independence in September.

The opposition parties have rejected the results of the election in the Kurdistan region and the disputed territories and are calling for a repeat of the vote. An Iranian delegation is in Kurdistan to mediate between the ruling and the opposition parties, an informed source told Al-Monitor.

Disaster may have been averted this time in the Kurdistan region, but if there is no resolution to the allegations of fraud, Kurdistan will face an uncertain future. “It felt like a movie,” Narges told Al-Monitor the following day at the Dark Blue Cafe. “When I woke up this morning, I could not believe that I had lived through this terror.”

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