IWPR - By Shorish Khalid in Sulaimaniyah
Kurdish city expected to be a key electoral battleground with much at stake for main contenders.
The Iraqi Kurdistan city of Sulaimaniyah is heading for a tense election that analysts say could settle the fate of the region's dominant party, and of a new bloc trying to unseat it.
At least 11 people have been injured this month in street-fighting involving the security forces and rival supporters from the opposition Change list and the incumbent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK. Gunfire is often heard at night, though much of it appears to be aimed skywards.
Fearing violence between armed supporters, the authorities have imposed a ban on campaigning between 9 pm and 6 am. Sulaimaniyah is the only Iraqi province with a campaign curfew, which party supporters are violating nightly.
In the evening hours, the city's main thoroughfare fills up with hot-blooded young men, chanting provocative political slogans or cruising by in cars, watched by scores of riot policemen.
Iraq's nationwide parliamentary elections on March 7 are seen within Sulaimaniyah as the ultimate contest for control of the city.
For decades, the city and the province that shares its name have been the power base of the PUK. The party is fighting this election on the joint Kurdistani Alliance ticket alongside its onetime rival and current partner in government, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP.
In an election last July for the semi-autonomous region's parliament, the newly formed Change list cut heavily into the PUK's majority with a campaign that played on discontent over perceived corruption and cronyism in the government.
Change, known as Goran in Kurdish, secured nearly a quarter of the seats in parliament, making it the region's main opposition group. Since June, the rivalry between Change and the PUK has intensified. Activists continue to confront each other in the streets, while their leaders trade accusations of betraying the Kurdish cause.
As the two groups enter this election, analysts say the stakes are higher than ever.
"In the previous election, the PUK didn't know the size of the opposition. This time around, it knows what it's up against – so the contest is more tense," said Rebwar Karim, a political science instructor at Sulaimaniyah University.
With 17 seats in the 325-seat Baghdad parliament, Sulaimaniyah province is an important prize for Kurdish leaders.
Butan Amedi, a Kurdish political observer based in the United States, said the PUK could not afford to lose seats in Baghdad, as this would leave it with little real power besides the control of Sulaimaniyah's provincial administration.
"For the PUK, this election is about political survival. For Goran, it's about continuing their movement to expand their influence in Baghdad," he said.
Defeat for the PUK in Sulaimaniyah could also alter the political equation within Iraqi Kurdistan, leaving the weakened party unable to justify its place as an equal partner in its power-sharing agreement with the KDP.
Both sides say they are applying lessons learnt from the previous campaign in June.
"This time round, we're more experienced," said Osman Barani, a Change leader. "We've opened campaign offices in the most of the city's districts."
Barani added that his list was better prepared to combat possible electoral violations by the dominant alliance. Change alleged widespread fraud in last year's regional elections, though this was denied by the parties that won the vote.
The PUK also appears to have adapted its tactics in Sulaimaniyah, with an attempt to emphasise the party's local origins. On the streets, fans of the PUK were far more likely to be seen waving the yellow flag of their party, rather than the colours of the Kurdistani Alliance to which it now belongs.
Farid Asasard, a member of the party's leadership committee, said it would not campaign on behalf of its coalition partner, the KDP, as it had done in June – a strategy thought to have alienated many PUK supporters who fought the KDP during Iraqi Kurdistan's bloody civil war in the 1990s.
"This time, our grassroots are running the election campaign," Asasard added. "We, as leaders of the PUK, are not showing ourselves."
Zana Mohammed, the head of Sulaimaniyah's security committee, said police and anti-riot teams were taking up joint positions at likely flashpoints in the city.
The conspicuous presence of heavily armed, uniformed men has proved contentious, however. Change says the security forces are largely loyal to the PUK, and their presence is intended to intimidate its supporters – a charge the PUK denies.
Eleven people were injured on February 16 in a skirmish involving Change supporters who had gathered outside a PUK office in the city. According to Mohammed Tofiq, a Change leader, his list's supporters were attacked by a counter-terrorism unit loyal to the PUK.
However, Arif Rushdi, a member of the PUK's leadership committee, denied any such force was involved and demanded evidence to back up Change's allegation.
Some of the injured Change supporters were later detained on suspicion of attacking the PUK office, a police official told IWPR. All have now been freed from custody, the official said.
On February 18, clashes were again reported as a convoy carrying a PUK leader crossed the city's main street. Change supporters accused the leader's bodyguards of attacking them, while the PUK said the list's supporters had thrown stones at their vehicles.
Aram Kamal, a 25-year-old taxi driver, said he had stopped parking on the main thoroughfare because he feared the violence would worsen.
"I'm worried about people throwing acid at my car. I'm fed up with them," he said.
Shorish Khalid is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR local editor Hemin H Lihony also contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.