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(photo credit: Matthew Gutman)
The influx of dozens of BMW's and Mercedes wasn't new. But the dust-encrusted cars had ferried something unexpected to this Kurdish city - hundreds of Sunni Arab tribal leaders and Sheikhs.
Over the past five years, the Kurds had forged a strong alliance with Iraq's Shiite majority. But they could be looking for a new partner in the Sunni Arabs, most of whom are calling on their supporters to vote in the December 15 th elections despite threats against them by extremists.
The move heralds the reemergence of Sunni Arabs, who boycotted elections for a temporary parliament in January, into Iraqi politics.
Massoud Barzani, the strongman president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) offered to rekindle the "old brotherhood between Kurds and Arabs," saying that despite the "Kurds suffering from the Baathist role in government, we will not avenge. We will be pioneers of compromise in the new Iraq.
That seemingly forthcoming speech came as hospital patients, soldiers, even unconvinced prisoners cast ballots across Iraq, as the country gears up for the historic elections.
The central government in Baghdad has declared a national lockdown between the 14th and 16th, with a ban on domestic travel to hamper the movement of insurgents.
The Sunni Arab delegates, some of them in Wahabi habits with long beards, listened to Barzani's speech "We come to begin negotiations on unifying our lines, to put an end our quarrels with the Kurds," said Shiekh Hamid Yousef, head of the Jumeili tribe.
While ostensibly in Irbil to meet Barzani, said the KRG's Director of National Relations, Dr. Muztaz Goran, "they are also here to vote for the Kurdish list on the understanding that once elected we will provide for them in terms of government services."
"These two days are critical for political life in Iraq," observed Ra'ed Mahmud, a representative for the Iraqi National Association for Tribal Leaders and Sheikhs based until recently in Baghdad. "We don't want to lose out like we did in the January elections," said the Mosul-based Mahmud, "we don't want the Shiites to control all of Iraq."
Iraq's approximately 15 million Shiites, some 60% of the country's population, were persecuted under the regime of Saddam Hussein, and Sunni Arab leaders continue to argue that they are not fit to rule.
After boycotting the elections, and having little say in the current Iraqi government the Sunnis are politically disorganized, according to Mahmud. Securing the backing of the powerful and - more importantly, united Kurds - could make the difference, he said.
After three years of war, and unremitting insurgency, few parts in Iraq have begun reconstructing their infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, roads and sewage. But Kurdistan, where Kurds have had autonomy since 1991, boasts some infrastructure that seems far off in many parts of the country.
Across much of Sunni Arab Iraq, in places like Tikrit, Mosul, Kirkuk and their surrounding villages the Sunni tribal leaders are getting out the vote.
"Putting up posters is one thing. But it is still too dangerous for more than 10 leaders to meet in one place. Then the insurgents try to kill us," said Mahmud.
The elections on Thursday "will be the first real democratic elections because we, the Sunnis will participate," he said.
Tribal leaders in Irbil Monday estimated that some 20% of their constituents, mostly kin and tribesmen, continue to support the insurgents.
But their support, should it come, and should the Kurds ultimately decide they want it, is the release of "innocent" detainees, and the "rehabilitation of services in our areas," said Sheikh Yousef.
Regardless, the Kurds are banking on an even more important return: a order to insurgents to hold their fire. Barzani alluded to that by thanking some of the delegates for the role of "Arabs who cooperated with the new Iraqi government against terrorists."
Khalif Rifat Abdullah, whose nickname is "Abu Harb" or the father of war, was an Iraqi intelligence officer under Saddam Hussein. He is now the representative of one of the two main Kurdish parties in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit.
The people of Tikrit, and the Salahidin province named after the great Kurd who fought the crusaders, "have always loved the Kurds,' he noted. Saddam's alleged killing of almost a quarter million of them, "represented only the minority," he added coyly.
Braving Iraq's hazardous roads and terrorists, they say, the tribal leaders and sheikhs drove north to the de-facto Kurdish capital. Upon arrival the Kurds threw a massive luncheon, serving mountains of rice, lamb, chicken and savories, at the "five star" Hawraman hotel. The sheikhs in their flowing gowns piled up the plates and nodded at the quality of Kurdish hospitality.
But some Kurdish analysts say it was just that, a gala event. "This is mostly a tactical move, but it does not mean the alliance with the Shiites is over," said Professor Hidir Buharie, Dean of the College of Political Science at Irbil's Salahddin University.
He believes the Kurds need support from all parts of Iraqi society, not only to shape a more democratic Iraq, but also "to ensure that Iraq remains a federal state," institutionalizing the autonomy the Kurds now so zealously protect.
But it may just boil down to power politics of the ilk Iraqis have known for decades. Abdullah, the former intelligence officer, said he threw his support to Barzani, "because he is a real man, in every sense of the word."