IN MOSUL, KIRKUK, ERBIL, and HAMDANIYAH, Iraq-When Eveline Aoraha goes to work, she wraps a handgun in a soft print scarf and pushes it into the bottom of a black leather purse. She always zips the bag. Within 10 miles of Mosul, she slips the gun from her bag, hands it to her driver, and wraps the scarf over her head.
Aoraha is one of three Assyrian Christians on a governing council of 41 in Nineveh province. Mosul is its capital. In the last four years, terrorist insurgents have killed 12 council members. Aoraha's colleagues, whom she calls "martyrs" to democracy, were Arab Muslims, Assyrian Christians, and Kurds; the oldest was 80, the youngest was a 34-year-old veterinarian and a mother.
All Mosul's leaders feel the terrorists' wrath. Duraid Kashmoula, a Muslim, has had his 17-year-old son and two brothers killed in the four years he has been governor of the province. He himself has narrowly escaped bombs at least three times, and just last month attended the funeral for his administrative assistant. The purpose of the terrorists, Aoraha said, "is to stop life here, and to stop development."
In so many ways the insurgents have succeeded. Iraq's third-largest city was one of its most picturesque: Parks and restaurants line one shady bank of the Tigris while ancient ruins front the other. The Nineveh bridge crosses the river into the city center where covered stalls sell melons and vegetables along the main traffic circle. Now the parks, the restaurants, and the hotels are all shuttered. The streets leading into the city center are lined with concrete barriers or simple dirt barricades topped with razor wire-anything to stop a bomb-laden car.
Checkpoints bottleneck traffic for hours, as nearly every vehicle is stopped and searched. Officials say overall violence in Mosul is down from one year ago. But during the week that I visited, insurgents bombed the house of a Sunni member of parliament from Mosul, wounding bystanders (the lawmaker himself was in Baghdad at the time); exploded a bomb near a soccer ground, killing five children; injured one resident using a roadside bomb; and detonated a vehicle near a police building, killing two and wounding about 40, including 15 policemen. Before the week was out, gunmen also killed an Assyrian Christian named Bashar al-Hazin, residents said, as he was walking between his church and home.
Improvements mean traffic is moving and people are walking the streets again, but Mosul feels like the neglected stepchild of the U.S. surge that has worked elsewhere. "Because of the success of the surge in Anbar, Diyala, and Baghdad, the insurgents come up to Mosul," said Khasro Goran, deputy governor of the province, and a Kurd. "Their intent now is to deform relationships for the next elections."
Aoraha contends, "The center of the Islamic [jihadist] state is in Mosul now. It is worse than Baghdad or Diyala." Two years ago Aoraha and her family moved 45 miles north of Mosul to a town where they feel safe, and she commutes to work three or four days a week, usually with five armed bodyguards. Her car speeds through town and into fortified government office compounds. Sometimes meetings are held outside the city at the nearby U.S. base-all meaning little interaction with residents. But many of her constituents also have fled. Officials say about 250,000 have left the city of about 1.7 million. Buses carry students and some workers from rural areas where they've taken refuge to universities in Mosul or to offices and return them to their villages of exile each day. Many say they've left Mosul for good.
No matter who the next U.S. president is, he will need new benchmarks for progress in Iraq because the venture that has cost about $500 billion will become his to own. Beyond accounting for combat forces, he will have to gauge political development and assess U.S. reconstruction teams and many nonmilitary programs. Local leaders are mindful that on the eve of U.S. elections and over 18 months into a proven counterinsurgency strategy, it's time for lasting political improvement. "To defeat terror, political powers must unite groups between military and politics," said Kashmoula.
To that end, Iraqis are scheduled to return to the polls for two pivotal elections-provincial balloting before the end of this year, then national elections in 2009. It has taken the surge by U.S. and Iraqi forces to make those elections possible. Now it will take full-fledged elections to make safety-and further minimizing of the U.S. role-possible.
"I wish elections would take place tomorrow," said Kashmoula, fingering prayer beads in an office that went completely dark with a power outage during our interview. On the day we met, the Baghdad parliament passed a long-debated law governing provincial elections. Under it voters are scheduled to go to the polls in Nineveh and Iraq's 16 other provinces-but not in Kirkuk-by the end of this year or early next year.
In Kirkuk, where Sunni Arabs and Turkmen oppose giving control of the historically Kurdish city to the Kurdish regional government, a fact-finding commission from the central government in Baghdad will begin this month to look more into holding a referendum, along with a citywide census, before provincial elections in the coming year; some say that is optimistic. Under the constitution a referendum should be held in connection with provincial elections to determine if Kirkuk remains under direct Baghdad supervision or becomes part of the Kurdish area.
New construction is up in Kirkuk, judging by the buildings rising concrete block by concrete block on its northern outskirts. Oilfields shoot brilliant flares skyward again along the city's western fringe. And violence is down 80 percent from two years ago, according to provincial governor Abdul Rahman Mustafa. "Kirkuk is different from other provincial conflicts and has become a national problem" because it has held up elections, he said. "But there is a lot of faking and exaggerating the facts, describing Kirkuk as a tinderbox of ethnic, regional, and sectarian violence, when it is no such thing."
Mustafa is ethnically a Kurd but politically independent. He laughs when asked how a homegrown politician in a divided city like Kirkuk can survive as an independent. "I am endangering my life by staying independent, but my independence has provided me power to maintain my position." As a lawyer in the city under Saddam's Arabization program, Mustafa could not issue contracts or engage in rent agreements on behalf of Kurds, only Arabs. He remembers how the city was nearly emptied of Kurds and of half its Christian population.
Mustafa has broad support in the city, but he recognizes that voters-like their counterparts in the United States-grow weary of politicians who toy with their city's future. While voter turnout in 2005 topped 60 percent here, registration for upcoming elections is lagging at about 29 percent of eligible voters. Kirkuk's status needs to be decided, he said, so that bigger issues can be confronted-like the fact that there is no airport, only minimal hospital care, and poor sewage.
"What is sad about Kirkuk is that everything here feels temporary, as if people are ready to leave at a moment's notice, especially Kurdish people," said Tanya Gilly, a member of parliament representing Kirkuk who divides her time between Baghdad and Kirkuk, where she lives in a neighborhood that receives running water two or three days per week. "Everyone feels they are in limbo and it will not change."
Throughout September a UN monitoring team met with Mosul and Kirkuk officials to work through the complexities of holding elections while a mass migration of Iraqis continues. Millions of Iraqis in the south and central areas have fled north and outside the country to escape violence. Those who have registered as internally displaced persons, or IDPs, will have the right to vote wherever they are.
Others who were forced to move under Saddam Hussein's regime are now eligible to return to their original homes, and to receive government compensation of 20 million Iraqi dinars ($16,000) for housing. That means Kurds once forced out of Kirkuk may return; and Arabs from Basra, forced by Saddam to relocate to Kirkuk, may go back to Basra.
For Iraq's minorities, including its historic Christian churches and the parties that represent them, the provincial elections present a turning point. Outside Mosul in the plains of Nineveh province, Assyrian parties staged demonstrations in the week following the vote in parliament. Their complaint: As part of the new provincial law, parliamentarians scrapped Article 50, a constitutional clause designed to guarantee proportional representation for Christians and other minorities. Without it they say Christians will have no voice in Iraqi governance.
In Hamdaniyah, a town about 25 miles east of Mosul also known as Qaraqosh, the men turned out on the streets early for a Sunday morning, halting traffic as thousands marched to protest the election law. Iraqi police and army units in trucks with mounted gunners followed the protesters closely as they formed a thick snake through the streets of downtown, then gathered outside government offices in blazing midday sun for speeches. "We are demonstrating our demands for full autonomy for our people-this was provided for by our constitution in Article 50 and endorsed by the UN," said Hamdaniyah mayor Nissan Karumi. Similar demonstrations are planned throughout the region and as far north as Dohuk, a largely Kurdish city that has also become home to an estimated 10,000 displaced Iraqis, most from Mosul.
Article 50 called for seats on provincial governing councils to be apportioned according to demographic makeup. Because no census has been conducted since the war and terrorist activities uprooted millions, there's no way to accurately show how many seats should go to which group. Many believe a census should be taken not only in Kirkuk but nationwide before elections are held.
In Nineveh a census likely would show that more Christians live here than ever before, as Assyrians and Chaldeans who lived in Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra are taking refuge in the province's historically Christian villages. Some Assyrians say they are underrepresented on the Nineveh provincial council already: Currently only three of 41 members are from what are considered Christian parties.
And that is a reason Assyrian and Chaldean leaders also are pressing for a Christian autonomous region modeled on the Kurdish regional government to the north-with its own parliament, constitution, budget, even flag. They feel the only way to solve many of the injustices they face is to create a region in which they are guaranteed a majority in government.
An autonomous region has advocates in Washington among Christian human-rights groups and some lawmakers. But it seems doomed to fall on deaf ears in Baghdad except that it has received endorsement from key Kurdish leaders and is pushed by Kurdish regional government finance minister Sarkis Aghagon. Aghagon himself is Assyrian but has been a member of the Kurdish government since 1992, serving as its deputy prime minister from 2004 through 2006. In a Sept. 29 interview in his Erbil government offices, Aghagon said the autonomous region he envisions would stretch from the Syrian border to the north at Fishkabor (currently part of the Kurdish regional government) to Hamdaniyah. "We are trying to secure our people in an area where they currently live," he said.
Aghagon, who has used undisclosed funds to rebuild hundreds of historically Christian villages across northern Iraq and down to Nineveh Plain for returnees, sees the new zone as an administrative region controlled by Assyrian-Chaldean political parties. (Asked how much money is used for reconstruction and where it comes from, he said, "We don't have such measures. . . . We only provide support for emergency cases in those areas.") Other minorities and Arabs "will coexist with us. . . . We are not separating ourselves from those people. They will have members in the government."
Iraq has many Christians who live outside this area and do not personally share the region's ancient roots. Some pastors say they fear that a regional divide will make them more vulnerable where they are. Said one pastor who did not give permission to be named because of threats to his church, "Many in the Assyrian and Chaldean leadership talk as though they are spokesmen for all Christians. They are not." Another in similar circumstances said, "Personally I want Christians everywhere, on equal footing with all Iraqis, not with special treatment in a special area." He also said, "Too many of our brothers and sisters want first power and authority, not Bible study and discipline."
Goran, the Kurdish deputy governor in Nineveh, insists that what in the end is needed is a vote: "The Kurdish regional government requests a referendum so that people in the middle have to decide. The people of Assyrian places should get to decide their future, not somebody else."
One reason the Christian region has recently gained wider interest may be that it provides a needed pawn in the chess game of redrawing Iraq's map. For Kurds it could be traded away to gain greater control in the Kirkuk region. Or kept as a buffer zone to what is now a hostile Arab/Kurd border.
Politics is messy, and progress toward elections could set the stage for bitter rivalries that erupt in more violence-or actually help to strengthen the democratic process. It's clear that ethnic minorities, including Christians, will play a greater role than ever in Iraq's political future. And that going to the polls in Iraq has consequences everywhere.