Iraq minorities fear new upheaval in multi-ethnic city after vote

KIRKUK, Iraq - The streets of Kirkuk, which has violently changed hands several times since Iraq's last election, are crammed with a dizzying patchwork of banners for nearly 300 candidates vying for votes in the multi-ethnic and religious city.
The sheer number of parties and lists make the exact outcome unpredictable in a Saturday vote for the 13 parliamentary seats belonging to Kirkuk, a microcosm of Iraq's minorities.
But one thing is certain - the city's Turkmen, Kurds, Assyrian Christians, Sunni Arabs and others will vote along ethnic or religious lines.
After recent political upheaval, they fear that gains by rival groups will upset a fragile coexistence and cause new strife.
"There needs to be balance between minorities in a place like Kirkuk - one group can't get stronger than the other," said Ahmed Zeinal, a 25-year-old pharmacist, before casting his vote.
Nonetheless, he wanted his fellow Turkmen to make a strong showing. "We're hoping to increase our seats. We feel stronger than we did a few months ago," he said.
Saturday's election, Iraq's first since Islamic State was driven out, will shape attempts to heal the country's deep divisions and could shift the regional balance of power. The three main ethnic and religious groups, the majority Shi'ite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, have been at loggerheads for decades.
Kirkuk, a flashpoint oil-rich province in northern Iraq along the fault lines between the Kurdish autonomous region and areas controlled by Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated central government, has been the focus of some of the country's worst post-Islamic State violence.
In October, Kurdish forces who had controlled Kirkuk city since driving Islamic State out in 2014 were in turn ejected by the Iraqi army, bringing the city back under Baghdad's control.
Minority groups who said they suffered under Kurdish rule, such as the Turkmen, have welcomed the return of the central government.
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