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Sunni party's rise in Iraq signals new nationalist current

The al-Hadba Party emerged from Saturday's vote as a serious challenge to the status quo in Iraq.

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With the end of Sunni-Shiite divisions that flared into sectarian civil war in 2006, Nineveh Province is at the center of one of Iraq's most serious rifts. Six of the province's nine districts include territory disputed by the Kurds and central governments. Kurds say areas bordering its existing "green line" demarcating the semiautonomous Kurdish region, including some oil fields, are historically Kurdish.

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Nujaifi says in addition to keeping the disputed areas, his priorities are freeing detainees seized in Nineveh and taken to Kurdish jails, dealing with the issue of 100,000 Arabs and Kurds displaced from the Kurdish territories, and amending the curriculum in some school districts which he says blame Arabs for Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds.

"I think if al-Hadba has done as well as we think, part of it is the broad appeal of its very strident rhetoric against the Kurds," says a US diplomat.

"I think some of the rhetoric was unfortunate but there is a reason it got traction," he says, citing Kurdish measures that prevent Iraqi Arabs from easily traveling to the Kurdish-controlled north of Iraq.

The Kurds' political challenge

The antipathy between Nujaifi and the Kurdish parties is so strong that the Kurds have threatened to refuse to take their seats in the new council if he becomes governor.

"If Atheel al-Nujaifi stays as a governor that will be a problem," says Mosul Mayor Zuhair al-Araji, a secular Shiite who maintains good relations with both Kurds and Arabs. "They won't accept him. Anyone who becomes governor has to be able to work with everyone."

"This is a change in politics – a real change," says Nujaifi. "We're not like the parties of the past.... We have never been part of the old regime and we were not against the old regime either," he says, blaming many of the country's problems on Iraqis who joined forces with the United States to oust Mr. Hussein and pave the way for the US invasion and occupation.

Al-Hadba, named after the leaning minaret that is Mosul's landmark, is a coalition of parties whose members include some of the city's business elite. Some US officials say the party is funded by former Saddam-era regime figures and Sunni sheikhs.

Nujaifi himself, whose grandfather and father were members of parliament under Iraq's monarchy, owns real estate, transport, agriculture, and tourism businesses in Iraq and a trading company in Jordan.

Some US officials say that the rise of a party of influential and formerly disenfranchised Sunni Arabs with a component of former Baathists could lessen the insurgency.

"To me it raises the question of why there was no violence," says the US diplomat, referring to the absence of attacks either on polling sites Saturday or registration sites in November and December. It could be "that the terrorists have a political agenda," he says. "That they were not opposed to elections."