As elections near, a closer look at the town they call “little Iraq” may well reflect the way the whole country is thinking about who to vote for and why.

Originally published in by IRIS Director Christine van den Toorn (April 18, 2013)


Like so many other places in Iraq, the small town of Bashiqa recently celebrated Nowruz, the Kurdish New Year. In the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, the festivities are an excuse to party like its 1999. But in Bashiqa, where many locals have joined Kurdish political parties, most still celebrate the same way many Iraqis elsewhere in the country do – with a simple picnic outside of town.

They prefer not to attend the Nowruz parties the two major Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), throw in Bashiqa. Some local leaders attend but many ordinary people do not. “They don’t want to be seen as party men,” one local explained.

The people of Bashiqa’s relationship with their politicians reflects how Iraqis – whether they’re in Iraqi Kurdistan or in Iraq proper – feel about civics and politics in general today.

For example, while Iraqi Kurdish politicians have made inroads here, there is also palpable cynicism about the political parties and process.

“They only care about their flags and their power,” said one local woman. Some told tales of officials requesting that flags be put up at schools – even those schools built by the central government. “Anyone who receives a job or other kind of handout should put one on his or her house or office – and promise to vote for the Kurdish politicians in elections.”

Others voiced similar sentiments: “They care about us because of our votes and their power” said one man.

Yet there is also appreciation for what the Iraqi Kurdish have done here. The KDP and PUK have put massive amounts of money into development and jobs in Bashiqa. They care about us and keep us safe and we like them and want them here, many said sincerely. In Bashiqa, people are practical and they will support a party if it benefits their town. Usually that pragmatism depends on systems of patronage or influence because there are few other ways to access power or economic opportunity in Iraq today.

And the two major Kurdish political parties, the KDP and PUK, have worked hard to establish those systems in Bashiqa.

Bashiqa, a nahiya or “sub-district” of Mosul, has a population of around 30,000 in the town centre, the majority of whom are Yazidi with Christian and Sunni Muslim minorities. Its rural villages, which hold over three times that number, are 90 percent Shabak but they’re diverse, in that these people identify as Shiite Muslim, Sunni Muslim or Kurdish. The remaining 10 percent are Christian, Arab, Kurdish, and Yazidi.

Bashiqa is part of Iraq’s disputed territories – that is, a territory that Iraq says belongs to the nation and that the Iraqi Kurdish say belongs to the semi-autonomous state they run. Because Bashiqa has such diverse, complex political allegiances and identities, it could fit into either Iraqi Kurdistan Region or Iraq. Indeed Bashiqa might be the most “disputed” territory between Kurdistan Region and the central government of Iraq in Baghdad, other than Kirkuk.

On the whole though, for about a decade Bashiqa, which is only 30 kilometres from Mosul, arguably still the most dangerous place in Iraq, had avoided the violence that plagued the rest of the country. However that is now changing.

As the Iraqi Kurdish have started to ramp up their electioneering in Bashiqa and other disputed territories in Ninawa, Bashiqa finally seems to have become part of Iraq’s pattern of violence, as elements in the greater area seek to challenge the Kurds and to exacerbate the slightest hint of instability.

At the end of October 2012, two car bombs exploded just outside the main city checkpoint - they resulted in three deaths and over twenty casualties. Then on March 7, 2013, a car bomb exploded in downtown Bashiqa at around 7pm, near to stores and cafes where young and old pass time after work. One local man was killed and several people from all of Bashiqa’s various ethnic and religious communities – Christian, Muslim, Yazidi and Shabak – were injured. It was the first bomb to explode inside the town since 2003.

And the most common response from those in Bashiqa about who, or what, was behind bombings is just one word: “elections”.

It’s also hard to know what the effect of the bombs was supposed to be. If the point was to say that the Iraqi Kurdish cannot protect you, then the response from locals has been the opposite. The bombs have not intimidated Iraqi Kurdish politicians, nor do they seem to have turned locals away from supporting the Iraqi Kurdish region, even though that support is mostly rather tepid. And many locals seem to believe that the Iraqi Kurdish are actually the only ones who can protect them.

Historically Bashiqa is oriented toward Iraq: Arabic is the most used language and the economy and administration also looks toward Iraq. KDP officials are obviously good salesmen though. “Ninety percent of Bashiqa is with Iraqi Kurdistan - the head of the offices, the police, everyone,” one local man stated. “Even [Iraq’s prime minister] al-Maliki would need to call the asayeesh [the Kurdish secret police] to get into Bashiqa,” he joked.

Since the 2005 elections, the make-up of the Ninawa council, which would be in charge of Bashiqa, has reflected the province’s status as disputed. In 2005, due to a Sunni Muslim boycott of elections, the Iraqi Kurdish won the majority of seats, allowing them to spread out their security forces and to dole out services and jobs around the region, as well as generally curry favour among local populations.

However when the Sunni Muslims returned to the elections in 2009, the Iraqi Kurdish suffered a staggering loss. As a result of all of the major decision-making positions being taken up by Arab politicians, the Iraqi Kurdish withdrew from the Council. They returned three years later when, in a seemingly surprising move, Ninawa’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, changed his mind about giving the Iraqi Kurdish some power.

Once known as a staunch Iraqi nationalist, al-Nujaifi’s move might have surprised some - but really only those unfamiliar with what really matters in Iraqi politics. With the Kurdish economy booming and Exxon moving in, the choice couldn’t have been clearer for him.

Any question about Bashiqeens’ reasons for supporting the KDP, and PUK is met with a laundry list of the services they have provided and the jobs they offer. At some point, one always hears the word mshlaha or “benefit”, a term used here almost as much as wasta or “connections”, to explain why anyone supports any politician or political party: financial reward.

The KDP has spent big money in Bashiqa, opening an agricultural development office and factories, building soccer fields and supporting local teams and civil society organizations. If someone wants money for a business or store or organization, the easiest way is to join a party and put a flag on your roof.

The flags of the KDP and Iraqi Kurdistan, and to a lesser extent the PUK, are ubiquitous in Bashiqa; they’re on cars, storefronts, roofs and homes. The KDP and PUK employ thousands of Bashiqeen as teachers, police officers and [Iraqi Kurdish military] peshmerga and they pay higher salaries than the central government in Baghdad.

While some officials might still be paid by Baghdad – the central government still provides Bashiqa’s services and supports the schools and municipal offices – it’s quite likely they will also be pro-Kurdish or pro- one of the Iraqi Kurdish political parties.

Baghdad did recently build a new girls school in Bashiqa and two weeks ago the central government announced they would give Ninawa’s civil servants and workers some land.

Mosul remains a huge stumbling block for Bashiqa locals. To many here, that volatile city represents the Iraqi state. Around 80 percent of the population of Bashiqa used to work there but now few would go there.

There is no shortage of stories of interrupted education, jobs and lives. For example, students from Bashiqa in Mosul University’s medical and engineering school left after 23 people from Bashiqa were massacred on a bus in Mosul in 2007. Those students are now in universities in Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems clear that as Mosul continues to devolve into an unstable, extremist-ridden and violent town, Bashiqa will continue to move away from it - and toward Iraqi Kurdistan.

Examining how local security is kept also reflects shifting political allegiances and the importance of the local in Bashiqa. Police on the streets and at checkpoints are almost all from Bashiqa and wear official Iraqi Police uniforms. But in fact, many have affiliations with Iraqi Kurdistan or belong to one of the Kurdish parties.

“That’s my neighbour,” one local, who accompanied NIQASH around Bashiqa, exclaimed about police at a checkpoint. “And he’s my cousin,” the local said, at another checkpoint. “I went to high school with that guy,” he said about another officer on the street.

Families, like checkpoints, often have members who work for Iraqi Kurdistan as peshmerga and for the Iraqi army. “Two of my uncles are in the peshmerga and the other is in the Iraq army,” one man said. “It doesn’t make any difference.”

The local candidates in the provincial elections also reflect the inroads Iraqi Kurdistan has made here. All except one are running on the Kurdish-dominated the Brotherhood and Coexistence Alliance, which combines all of Iraqi Kurdistan’s political parties on one list for the provincial elections in Ninawa’s disputed territories. “None of the other parties matter,” said another local. “Only the Party matters.” One often hears the KDP referred to as “the Party” which reflects its dominance as well as the dispassionate support it has among the population.

Despite the town’s status as a disputed territory, look at the candidates, the campaign posters, and the sea of yellow (KDP), green (PUK) and Iraqi Kurdish flags in town, and it feels as though there’s very little dispute going on.

Other than the lone Shabak candidate from Bashiqa’s hinterlands who’s campaigning, the closest place you’ll see a poster for one of the Iraqi Arab parties is 20 kilometres away in Qara Qosh, a majority-Assyrian town bordering Bashiqa. There, Atheel al-Nujaifi’s list is fielding two local candidates.

And outside of Bashiqa’s town centre in the various Shabak-dominated rural villages, the green signs are those of Shiite Muslim origin, not the Kurdish PUK party’s green. The Shabak have diverse allegiances; some identify as Kurds, others as Shiite Muslims and some, particularly in Khorsebad, as Sunni Muslims. There are also nomadic tribes and Kurdish Islamists scattered in smaller villages. One man described the situation as, “so complicated it will make your head explode”.

In fact many Bashiqeen are truly nostalgic for politics’ old days. “Today it’s all money and mslaha,” observed one man who had led the local branch of the Iraqi Communist party in the 1960s. “We cared about building the nation and the development of the nation back then.”

Another local man said that he once fought for the KDP but that although he still works with the Party, he was no longer a party member today. “Parties today are only concerned with quantity, not quality,” he noted.

Ask why people feel this way and some locals in Bashiqa will explain that they’re just exhausted, politically speaking, after decades of war and sanctions. Hence their somewhat apathetic acceptance of KDP and PUK patronage.

“We’ve been through so much with Saddam and now we are tired,” one local said. “So if they [referring to the KDP] give us security and let us live how we want, fine. After Saddam and the bad times, we just want to live in peace and stability and to not have to worry about everything.”

If Bashiqa can be taken as an example of how Iraqis will vote in the upcoming provincial elections, then it seems that - although naysayers like to think that Iraq and Iraqis are defined by religion and ethnic identities - voters in Iraq, as anywhere in the world, economic gains, security, and political stability may well trump religion and ethnicity this time.