Atheel al-Nujaifi, leader of an emergent Sunni Arab party, suddenly finds himself at the center of a sea change in this country's most turbulent province.
While ballots from Iraq's provincial vote Saturday are still being counted, officials say that Mr. Nujaifi's al-Hadba Gathering Party probably did well enough to control Nineveh's provincial council, previously in the hands of Kurds.
A victory would have broad implications. While it sets the stage for heightened tensions in Mosul between Kurds and Arabs, some say it could also convince Sunni Arab insurgents to lower their guns as they are beginning to see new political openings.
Overall, Nujaifi's party seems a harbinger of a wider nationalist, secular current intent on throwing off US and Iranian influence.
"All the people who went out and voted, voted against the status quo and the Kurdish parties have to understand this reality," says Nujaifi, a prominent businessman who campaigned on a platform that US and Iraqi officials describe as blatantly anti-Kurdish.
"We are not enemies of the Kurds," insists Nujaifi, his black Italian cashmere jacket offset by a subtly striped red and white tie. "There are certain issues and we would like to discuss these issues with Kurdish parties but we are not going to give up the rights for the people who have voted for our party."
Nujaifi warns that unrest could break out in the streets of Mosul, Iraq's third largest city and a main commercial center, if Kurdish officials do not accept the election results.
Kurdish authorities in Nineveh have already complained to electoral officials that voter registration problems barred many supporters from voting.
Nujaifi insists that al-Hadba has won at least 50 percent of the provincial votes. Officials close to the election process say it's closer to 40 percent – still enough to dominate Nineveh's provincial council and choose the new governor. Kurds say al-Hadba is overestimating its support.
A victory by al-Hadba would produce the most dramatic transition among the 14 Iraqi provinces that voted Saturday. No other majority Arab province has had a provincial council so dominated by Kurds, who have held 31 of the 41 seats in the existing provincial government.
New Sunni power center
Mosul, where more than 1,000 senior Iraqi Army officers were thrown out of work when US authorities disbanded the army, has been a center of the insurgency.
"We thought the big Sunni power would be the Awakening, but al-Hadba could be the new rising star," says one Western official monitoring the elections.
The Awakening Movement, armed tribal members who first turned against Al Qaeda in Iraq-linked insurgents in Anbar Province, were participating for the first time in elections. Now allegations of fraud in Saturday's vote and an expected strong showing by the religious Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) have sparked warnings of violence by Awakening leaders.
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.
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."