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Change Comes to Kurdistan

Despite voter fraud and intimidation, reformers win in northern Iraq's latest election.

4:30 PM, Jul 28, 2009 • By JERRY WEINBERGER
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As I predicted in THE WEEKLY STANDARD Online on July 22, Change, the new opposition in Kurdistan, did very well against the "Kurdistani list," the electoral combination of the two ruling parties, Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kudistan (PUK) that has ruled in the southern province of Sulaimani and Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) that has ruled in the northern provinces of Dohuk and Erbil.

In a stinging rebuke to the PUK, the unofficial count indicates that Change won Suliaimani's July 25 election. Things were not so easy for Change in the north, where in the 2005 election the brutal Barzani punished the rival Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) by whipping up mobs that burned KIU headquarters and murdered its head in Dohuk.

According to well-placed sources reporting to me from Sulaimani (including Change leader Nawshirwan Mustafa's youngest son Chia, who just graduated from Harvard where he took a class from Harvey Mansfield), when initial projections indicated a Change list victory even in the north, the voting fraud in that area was kicked into high gear.

Around 3:30 p.m. the Kurdistani list in Erbil and Dohuk shipped busloads of people (mostly soldiers in mufti) from polling center to polling center to vote several times. In addition to this last-minute scramble, Change election observers were forcibly ejected from polling stations in Dohuk for the entire day of the election. In Erbil, Kurdistani list supporters were provided well over a hundred thousand "111 electoral cards" (special ballots to be used by qualified voters not registered because of a technical error), which they used to vote multiple times. Ballots of those who did not show up to vote (including a huge number of expatriates) were, by some mysterious telepathy, filled out. Independent High Election Commission complaint forms were not delivered to Change list observers in Erbil until after 2:00 p.m. and then in pathetically inadequate numbers.

Checkpoints were set up on all the major routes to local election committees in an attempt to steal ballot boxes suspected of coming from Change list strongholds. The Independent High Election Commission (whose Director General in Baghdad is a Barzani loyalist) colluded in this fraud, by closing its eyes and by extending the election time against the rules. Change rightly fears that further tampering will occur as the results are sent to the Commission in Baghdad, if not in Baghdad itself.

Even worse than the fraud was the campaign of armed intimidation that began right after the polls closed. According to a formal statement by Nawshirwan Mustafa, KDP troops attacked and fired on and looted Change list offices in the cities of Erbil and Dohuk. In both cities the Change-affiliated Kurdish News Network offices were surrounded by troops who fired at the offices to intimidate those inside. In Dohuk, KDP troops attacked the homes of Change list supporters and one candidate on the list, Abdul Wahid Yasin Saed, was forced to flee the city for Sulaimani at 4 a.m. But it's not clear that he picked the right haven: In the city of Sulaimani, a bloody confrontation was averted only by last-minute U.S. intervention.

According to my source, who for his safety must remain anonymous, these harrowing events transpired: When the polls closed in Sulaimani the areas around Nawshirwan Mustafa's political and media headquarters and around his private residence began to fill with hundreds of heavily-armed KDP pesh merga from Erbil. News came that more troops were coming from the cities of Kalar, Chamchamal, Chwarta, and Dokan.

My source was asked to relay a message to the State Department Regional Reconstruction Team in Irbil, the U.S. Embassy, and the U.S. military forces: large numbers of KDP and PUK troops were in and moving on the city and responsible officials wanted the U.S. to prevent the bloodbath that could well occur. As my source put it to me: "the message was clear; if the U.S. government did nothing they would have to deal later with a disaster."

On getting to his office he called everyone he knew, and the message got through to the Americans. U.S. Brig. General Robert B. Brown, deputy commanding general (support) MND-North, called the officials to ask for more information. And about a half hour after that call the PUK-KDP troops began to leave the city. The Kurdish Regional Government apparently got the message that the U.S. is watching.