Iraq jails French and German citizens for life for joining Islamic State

FILE PHOTO: An Iraqi student walks past a school wall covered with drawings showing how Islamic State militants executed their prisoners in Mosul, Iraq April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo

By Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – An Iraqi court sentenced a French man and a German woman to life in prison on Monday for belonging to Islamic State, forging ahead with the trial of hundreds of people – many foreigners – captured after the militant group’s defeat last year.

French citizen Lahcen Ammar Gueboudj, in his 50s, and the German, Nadia Rainer Hermann, 22, had both pleaded not guilty to joining the hardline Islamist group that captured a third of Iraq and swathes of Syria in 2014.

Though Gueboudj and Hermann were tried individually, they were brought out for sentencing with 13 others tried on Monday, crowding the small courtroom.

During Gueboudj’s roughly 30-minute trial, he said he had only come to the region to retrieve his son who had joined Islamic State and had been living in its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa.

“I would never have left France if my son hadn’t been in Syria,” he told the judge, through a translator, in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court.

“I know I’m crazy to have gone to Syria.”

Speaking to Reuters in French through the bars of a holding cell outside the courtroom before he was sentenced, a disheveled Gueboudj said he had signed papers he had not understood were a confession during the investigation.

Hermann and Gueboudj both told Reuters they had spoken to consular staff only once since being detained in 2017. They had court-appointed lawyers present on Monday but had neither met with nor spoken to them, they said. The sentences can be appealed.

Embassy staff and translators from both countries attended Monday’s hearing.

Hermann was sentenced in January to a year in jail for entering Iraq illegally.

Asked by the judge whether she believed in Islamic State’s ideology, she said no. However, she earlier admitted to the judge that she had received a salary of 50,000 Iraqi dinars ($42) per month, which confirmed her membership to the group.

“This whole process is confusing,” Hermann, who wore a blue prison uniform over a black abaya and a grey headscarf, told Reuters before the verdict, speaking in German from the holding cell, in the presence of Iraqi prison guards.

Hermann was the only woman being tried on charges relating to Islamic State on Monday. Iraq has been prosecuting women of various nationalities for months and was sentencing roughly 10 women a day at the peak of trials in the spring.

Around 20 foreign women, including nationals of Turkey, Germany, and Azerbaijan, have been sentenced to death for membership of Islamic State.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

‘Horrors that can’t be told’: Afghan women report Islamic State rapes

FILE PHOTO: An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Abdul Matin Sahak

SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A mother of three from a remote area of northwestern Afghanistan remembers the day the head of a local Islamic State group came to her village, demanding money he said her husband had promised.

“I told him we didn’t have any money but that if we found any we would send it to him. But he didn’t accept that and said I had to be married to one of his people and leave my husband and go with them,” Zarifa said.

“When I refused, the people he had with him took my children to another room and he took a gun and said if I didn’t go with him he would kill me and take my house. And he did everything he could to me.”

Even by the bloody standards of the Afghan war, Islamic State has gained an unmatched reputation for brutality, routinely beheading opponents or forcing them to sit on explosives.

But while forced marriages and rape have been among the most notable features of Islamic State rule in Iraq and Syria they have been much less widely reported in Afghanistan.

While there have been reports in Nangarhar, the eastern province where Islamic State first appeared in 2014 and in Zabul in the south, deep taboos that can make it impossible for women to report sexual abuse make it hard to know its scale.

The group has a growing presence in Zarifa’s province of Jawzjan, on the border with Turkmenistan, exploiting smuggling routes and attracting both foreign fighters as well as unemployed locals and fighting both U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban.

For Zarifa, the attack forced her to leave her home in the Darzab district of south Jawzjan and seek shelter in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.

“My husband was a farmer and now I can’t face my husband and my neighbors and so, despite the danger, I left,” she said.

TEN MONTHS OF TERROR

Another woman, Samira, who escaped Darzab and now lives in Sheberghan, said fighters came to her house and took her 14 year-old sister to their commander. Like Zarifa, she did not want to use her full name because of the stigma against victims of sexual violence.

“He didn’t marry her and no one else married her but he raped her and his soldiers forced themselves on her and even the head of the village who is in Daesh forced himself on my sister and raped her,” she said. Daesh is an Arabic term for Islamic State.

“This girl was there with Daesh for 10 months but after 10 months she escaped and now she’s with us. But I can’t tell anyone about this out of shame.”

Stories like those told by Samira and Zarifa have emerged in recent months as thousands have fled Darzab.

“Daesh has committed many horrors in Darzab that can’t be told,” said the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

“Daesh does not abide by any rules and there is no doubt about the horrors people have been speaking about.”

Islamic State has no known spokesman in Afghanistan. But the accounts were broadly endorsed by government officials who say Islamic State is trying to import an entirely foreign ideology.

Documents captured in Syria in 2015 revealed ways in which Islamic State theologians regulated the use of female captives for sexual purposes.

“It is completely against our culture and traditions,” said Mohammad Radmanish, a defense ministry spokesman, who said that Darzab was not the only area where rapes and sexual slavery by Islamic State had been reported.

“When they came to our area, everyone knew what these Daesh had come for,” said Kamila, a woman from Darzab, who said that three girls were taken from the area where she lived.

“They would bind a girl or woman from a house and take her with them. At first they said that we would have to marry them. But then, when they took them, many men forced themselves on them and raped them.”

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Chemical arms watchdog wins right to assign blame for attacks

The logo of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is seen during a special session in the Hague, Netherlands June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Yves Herman

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The world’s chemical weapons watchdog won new powers on Wednesday to assign blame for attacks with banned toxic munitions, a diplomatic victory for Britain just months after a former Russian spy was poisoned on its territory.

In a special session, member states of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) voted in favor of a British-led proposal by a 82-24 margin, easily reaching the two-thirds majority needed for it to succeed.

The motion was supported by the United States and European Union, but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria and their allies.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said the vote would empower the OPCW “not just to identify the use of chemical weapons but also the to point the finger at the organization, the state that they think is responsible.”

“That’s crucial if we are going to deter the use of these vile weapons.”

Russia said that the vote called the future of the organization itself into question.

“The OPCW is a Titanic which is leaking and has started to sink,” Industry Minister Georgy Kalamanov told reporters.

“A lot of the countries that voted against the measure are starting to think about how the organization will exist and function in the future,” he told reporters.

Though the use of chemical weapons is illegal under international law, the taboo on deploying them has been eroding after their repeated use in the Syrian civil war, but also in Iraq, Malaysia and Britain since 2012.

The poisoning of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England in March led to tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats by Moscow and the West and was one reason for Britain’s push to strengthen the OPCW. Russia has denied any involvement in their poisoning.

From 2015 to 2017 a joint United Nations-OPCW team had been appointed to assign blame for chemical attacks in Syria. It found that Syrian government troops used nerve agent sarin and chorine barrel bombs on several occasions, while Islamic State militants were found to have used sulfur mustard.

But at a deadlocked U.N. Security Council, the joint team was disbanded last year after Moscow used its veto to block several resolutions seeking to renew its mandate.

The British proposal declares the OPCW will be empowered to attribute blame for attacks, though details of how it will do so will still need to be further defined by the organizations’ members.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch. Additional reporting by Toby Sterling, Editing by Jon Boyle)

Few Islamic State fighters return but home-grown attacks rise, Europol says

Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol's Counter Terrorism Centre and Catherine De Bolle, head of Europol, hold a news conference in The Hague, Netherlands June 19, 2018. Picture taken June 19, 2018 REUTERS/Eva Plevier

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – Europeans who went off to fight on behalf of Islamic State have not flooded back in large numbers since losing strongholds in Syria and Iraq, Europe’s police agency said on Wednesday, but they have inspired a growing number of home-grown attacks.

Tracking battle-hardened fighters is still the main concern of Western counter-terrorism officials, though a big influx did not materialize, Manuel Navarrete, head of Europol’s Counter Terrorism Centre, told reporters at its Hague headquarters.

“The main threat is coming from foreign terrorist fighters even though the numbers … that are returning are quite low,” he said, referring to outsiders who traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside militants there.

There has been a spike in recent years in IS-inspired attacks by “lone wolves” using little more weaponry than a knife or car. Most have been less deadly than strikes by former fighters, but they are harder for police to stop, he said.

The number of attacks and foiled plots in Europe more than doubled last year to 205, killing 62 people, Europol’s annual report showed.

“Even though we suffer more attacks, they were less sophisticated,” Navarrete said.

Of more than 5,000 Europeans – most from Britain, France, Germany and Belgium – who joined the ranks of fighters in Syria and Iraq, some 1,500 have returned and 1,000 were killed, according to the EU intelligence-sharing body. There is only limited intelligence available about the fate of the rest.

Many fighters have been detained. Some traveled to Malaysia, the Philippines and Libya. Others are thought to be laying low or in third countries like Turkey, he said.

Tougher border controls, surveillance and prosecution in Europe have also dissuaded some from returning, with EU nations making more than 700 arrests linked to jihadi activity in 2017, he said.

The suicide bomber who killed 22 people at an Ariana Grande concert in the English city of Manchester in May 2017 had just returned from Libya. But most recent attacks have been carried out by home-grown jihadists who never went to conflict zones.

As the Islamic State was routed last year from Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria, it urged followers to carry out attacks at home, rather than travel to its self-declared caliphate.

“Now the message of the Islamic State has changed … to being more negative and asking for retaliation,” Navarrete said.

While lone actors often use tactics that result in fewer victims, they pose a threat that is difficult to prevent. In 2016, a man killed 86 people by driving a truck into a crowd in the Mediterranean city of Nice, France.

“You have to be very, very close to a person in order to take action on the police level to prevent this,” Navarrete said. “And the closest you can be to a person right now is not going to the front door, it is going to Facebook, to Twitter.”

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iraqi ballot box storage site catches fire in Baghdad

Smoke rises from a storage site in Baghdad, housing ballot boxes from Iraq's May parliamentary election, Iraq June 10, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – A storage site housing half of Baghdad’s ballot boxes from Iraq’s parliamentary election in May caught fire on Sunday, just days after parliament demanded a nationwide recount of votes, drawing calls for the election to be re-run.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described the fire as a “plot” aimed at Iraq’s democracy.

The timing of the fire undermined the results of an election whose validity was already in doubt. Fewer than 45 percent of voters cast a ballot, a record low, and allegations of fraud began almost immediately after the vote.

“Burning election warehouses … is a plot to harm the nation and its democracy. We will take all necessary measures and strike with an iron fist all who undermine the security of the nation and its citizens,” Abadi said in a statement.

Experts would conduct an investigation and prepare a detailed report on how the fire started, he said.

An Interior Ministry spokesman said the fire was confined to one of four warehouses at the site. State television said ballot boxes were moved to another location under heavy security.

Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji later told a local television channel that “not a single box was burned.”

Abadi, whose electoral alliance came third in the election, had said on Tuesday that a government investigation had found serious violations and blamed Iraq’s independent elections commission for most of them.

Parliament mandated a full manual recount the next day. The Independent High Elections Commission had used electronic vote- counting devices to tally the results.

A recount could undermine nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a long-time adversary of the United States whose bloc won the largest number of seats in the election. One of Sadr’s top aides expressed concern that some parties were trying to sabotage the cleric’s victory.

CALLS FOR RE-RUN

Salim al-Jabouri, the outgoing speaker of parliament, said the fire showed the election should be repeated.

“The crime of burning ballot-box storage warehouses in the Rusafa area is a deliberate act, a planned crime, aimed at hiding instances of fraud and manipulation of votes, lying to the Iraqi people and changing their will and choices,” he said in a statement.

Jabouri narrowly lost his seat in May and had been one of the strongest proponents of a recount before the fire.

Opponents of the recount, mostly those whose blocs did well in the election, point out that many who voted for it were lawmakers who lost their seat. Sadr’s bloc boycotted the parliamentary session in which the vote took place.

Jabouri’s call was seconded by Vice President Iyad Allawi, the leader of the electoral alliance Jabouri ran as part of.

Top Sadr aide Dhiaa al-Asadi said the fire was a plot aimed at forcing a repeat of the election and hiding fraud.

“Whoever burned the election equipment and document storage site had two goals: either cancelling the election or destroying the stuffed ballots counted amongst the results,” he tweeted.

The fire took place at a Trade Ministry site in Baghdad where the election commission stored the ballot boxes from al-Rusafa, the half of Baghdad on the eastern side of the Tigris river. Baghdad is Iraq’s most populous province, accounting for 71 seats out of the Iraqi parliament’s 329.

JUDICIAL TAKEOVER

The site was divided into four warehouses, said Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Saad Maan. Only one – housing electronic equipment and documents – had burned down, he said.

Firefighters stopped the fire from spreading to the remaining three warehouses, where the ballot boxes are stored, he said.

The law mandating a manual recount also mandated the board of the election commission be replaced by judges. Earlier on Sunday, the Supreme Judicial Council, Iraq’s highest judicial authority, named the judges who will take over replace the commissioners.

The council also named judges to replace the commission’s local chiefs in each of Iraq’s 18 provinces, another measure mandated by parliament.

The board of commissioners has said it would appeal against the law forcing the recount.

Its chairman a statement late on Sunday said all of the electronic vote counting and voter identification equipment had been lost in the fire but that ballot boxes were safe.

“The fire does not affect the election results,” Maan al-Hetawi said, because it had kept copies of the paper tallies produced by the vote counting devices in a separate location.

“The commission today is targeted from all sides … we call on all constitutional institutions in the country and the leaders of all political blocs to do their historic duty and preserve the results of the electoral process,” he said.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; additional reporting by Huda Majeed; editing by Larry King and Sandra Maler)

At least 18 killed in Baghdad explosion: source

People react at the site of a car bomb attack in Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq June 6, 2018. REUTERS/Wissm al-Okili

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Huda Majeed

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – At least 18 people were killed and over 90 wounded in an explosion in Baghdad’s Sadr City district on Wednesday, an Iraqi police source said.

Photos from the scene showed a destroyed car and building as well as weeping relatives of victims.

An interior ministry spokesman said in a brief statement the blast was the result of the detonation of an ammunitions cache and that security forces had opened an investigation.

The ammunition had been stored in a mosque and the explosion happened during its transfer into a car parked nearby, the police source said.

Earlier, state television cited a ministry spokesman describing the explosion as “a terrorist aggression on civilians,” which had caused “martyrs and wounded”.

Authorities did not offer an explanation of the discrepancies between the two statements, neither of which gave casualty figures.

Sadr City is a stronghold of nationalist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose political bloc won a May 12 parliamentary election. Parliament ordered a national recount of votes on Wednesday.

In May, two homemade bombs targeted the headquarters of the Iraqi Communist Party, which is part of Sadr’s bloc.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein and Huda Majeed; Editing by Andrew Roche and Peter Cooney)

Turkish dam project threatens rift with Iraq over water shortages

A general view shows a costruction site of the Ilisu dam by the Tigris river in southeastern Turkey, September 27, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ahmed Aboulenein and Ali Kucukgocmen

BAGHDAD/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Iraq is surprised by Turkey’s decision to start holding back water behind its Ilisu dam earlier than promised, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday, suggesting it was done to win support for the government in upcoming elections.

Turkey has started filling the dam basin, a step that has alarmed neighboring Iraq, which is struggling with a water crisis.

“The Turkish prime minister had promised me they would start filling the dam at the end of June, not the start, so I was surprised to see they started,” Abadi told a news conference.

“I am aware that they have elections on June 24 and perhaps need to get the support of farmers,” he added, referring to Turkey’s planned general elections for president and parliament.

Turkey’s ambassador in Baghdad said Ankara is cooperating.

“We will not take any step without consultation with the neighboring country on how we can cooperate and provide support during any problem, Fatih Yildiz told a news conference through an Arabic translator.

A spokesman for Turkey’s Ministry of Forest and Water Management spokesman said Turkey was “partially” filling the dam’s basin.

Around 70 percent of Iraq’s water resources flow from neighboring countries, especially in the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. Both flow through Turkey.

Abadi was at lengths on Tuesday to show his outgoing government was doing everything it can to tackle the issue.

“There are plans to secure our water resources on both the domestic and foreign fronts. Yes, there is a water shortage this year, but it is not a crisis,” he said.

The government has plans to provide water to farmers, Abadi said, especially for Iraq’s strategic wheat crop. At the same time, it might reduce plots of land reserved for planting other crops that consume a lot of water.

Iraqi media suggested Baghdad had asked Ankara to delay holding back water because of its own election, which took place on May 12. Abadi’s bloc came third, but he may yet secure a second term if he gathers support from the winning groups.

The dam issue was not the only point of contention between Baghdad and Ankara on Tuesday. Abadi demanded Turkey respect Iraq’s sovereignty in its approach to Kurdish militias.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said on Monday that Turkish forces were waiting for the right time to carry out an operation in northern Iraq’s Qandil region where high-ranking members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are located.

Soylu had said that “Qandil is not a distant target” anymore. Abadi countered that the Turks had been “talking about that for over 35 years” and again suggested the statement was an attempt to score points before the Turkish elections.

“We will not accept any violations of Iraq’s sovereignty,” he said, adding there was no military coordination with Turkey on this issue.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; additional reporting by Maha El Dahan in Dubai; writing by Michael Georgy and Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by Larry King)

Iraqi election commission says Kirkuk voting stations under siege, staff inside

The head of Iraq's Independent Higher Election Commission Riyadh al-Badran speaks during a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khalid al Mousily

By Ulf Laessing

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk were on Wednesday besieging several polling stations containing election staff, four days after a national vote, the head of the electoral commission said.

Riyadh al-Badran said the gunmen, who he did not identify, were putting pressure on the commission to change the election results in the multi-ethnic region.

“The employees of the commission are in a hostage situation,” he said, calling on authorities to provide protection.

The final nationwide results should be announced in the next two days, Badran said.

The initial results in Kirkuk were disputed by the Turkmen and Arab communities of the region which is also inhabited by a large Kurdish population.

The election commission said on Tuesday that initial results from Kirkuk indicated a win for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a historic Iraqi Kurdish party.

In October, Iraqi forces backed by Shi’ite militias dislodged Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who had taken control of Kirkuk city in 2014, preventing its capture by Islamic State militants who had overrun Iraqi army positions in northern and western Iraq.

The return of the Iraqi army to Kirkuk was greeted with relief by the Arab and Turkmen populations there.

Saturday’s elections were the first in Iraq since the defeat of Islamic State last year by Iraqi forces backed by a U.S.-led coalition.

Initial nationwide results showed a surprise victory for the bloc that supports populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a Shi’ite not aligned with Iran who campaigned on a nationalist platform, tapping into public resentment against widespread corruption and huge social disparities.

A tally by Reuters of provincial results announced over the past three days shows Sadr’s list leading, followed by Amiri, a close ally of Iran, and then outgoing Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani was holding talks with politicians in Baghdad to promote the formation of a new cabinet which would have Iran’s approval, two people familiar with the political process underway said.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Ulf Laessing; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Iraqi Kurdish fortunes reversed in Kirkuk, the city they longed for as capital

An Iraqi security member dips his finger in ink after casting his vote at a polling station, two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Kirkuk, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed

By John Davison

KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) – An intersection in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk paints a vivid picture of the Kurds’ rapid turn of fortune. The towering statue of a fighter who used to brandish a Kurdish sunburst flag now holds the red, white and black of Iraq’s Baghdad government.

Opposite, a fortified former headquarters of the Kurdish autonomous region’s ruling party serves as a base for the Iraqi forces that led Kirkuk’s swift recapture in October and dashed hopes of Kurdish independence.

Many Iraqi Kurds long for Kirkuk as the eventual capital of their own state, and as Islamic State went down to defeat in northern Iraq last year the oil-rich city seemed closer than ever to becoming a permanent center of Kurdish power.

That short-lived ascendancy has been reversed, and hopes for a Kurdish Kirkuk have faded ahead of an Iraqi national election on Saturday expected to weaken the main Kurdish parties there.

“We had many dreams for Kurdistan but these have gone – we’ve lost it all,” said Mariwan Ali, a 28-year-old former fighter in the Kurdish peshmerga militia who now works as a cook in Kirkuk.

He said he would boycott the vote. “I refuse to vote in any Iraqi election, for anyone who’s part of the state of Iraq.”

Ali and his comrades helped drive Islamic State out of Kirkuk after Iraqi government forces fled a lightning advance by the jihadist militants in 2014.

With that, the Kurds, who were persecuted for decades under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, controlled Kirkuk for the first time, and the Erbil-based Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) duly erected the statue of the Kurdish fighter.

The peshmerga, Iraqi military and Shi’ite Muslim militias joined forces to defeat Islamic State in 2017. But with their common enemy gone, the rivalry between the KRG and Baghdad was laid bare, especially in Kirkuk.

A decision to include Kirkuk in a controversial Kurdish referendum in September that voted overwhelmingly for independence sealed its fate. Within weeks, Iraqi government forces had advanced on the city, and captured it in a matter of days.

Now, only the Iraqi flag is permitted to fly.

The city’s takeover was a devastating blow, taking much of the KRG-run autonomous region’s oil revenue, and a symbolic loss that local Kurds say has left them humiliated and considering leaving again.

“I couldn’t bear to see another Kurdish flag ripped up in front of me – I’d rather die,” 67-year-old Ali Majid, another former fighter who volunteered post-retirement to fight against Islamic State, said at his restaurant.

“It’s humiliating to be a Kurd now in Kirkuk. You get harassed at checkpoints, and I had a Kurdish flag sticker taken off my car,” he said. “I also got rid of the gun I kept at home, after repeated searches by Shi’ite militias” who had helped recapture Kirkuk in October.

Majid was one of few Kurds wearing the traditional sash across his waist.

Other expressions of Kurdish nationalism have disappeared. At a school used as a polling station for the September referendum, where Kurds danced at the time, Iraqi federal police filed in on Thursday to cast their early ballots.

MUTED NATIONALISM

Majid said that if the election result weakened the Kurds, he would leave Kirkuk.

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.

In Kirkuk, home to many of Iraq’s minorities including Kurds, Turkmen, Sunni Arabs and Assyrian Christians, the distribution of seats across ethnicity and religion is not expected to change.

Kurds, who are scattered across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, suffered a particularly brutal fate under Saddam, who gassed them, buried them in mass graves and gave their land to Arabs.

With many Kurds disillusioned about the political elites who led the failed independence bid, the election could undermine the grip on power that two ruling parties have enjoyed since Iraq’s Kurdish region gained semi-autonomous status in 1991.

Kurdish campaigning in Kirkuk has been muted. Supporters of Turkmen and Sunni Arab candidates paraded through the city center on Thursday, tooting car horns and waving flags, but no such fanfare was seen in the quieter Kurdish neighborhoods.

Many from Kirkuk’s other minorities say they are happy to be back under the Baghdad government.

“Things are better now, there’s more order. We prefer the Iraqi state to be in control here, since it’s a legal government and not just a non-state actor,” Turkmen oil worker Bashar Aref, 45, said at a shopping center.

“Before October it was tense.”

A return of Kurdish control looks less likely than ever. Local Kurdish media reports that Kurdish security forces might have a future role in the policing of the area have been rejected by Iraqi military officials.

“We have no orders to the effect that the peshmerga will return to Kirkuk,” General Maan Saadi of the elite Counter Terrorism Service said from his office in the former Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters.

“The city is under control, and more stable than it was under the peshmerga.”

(Reporting by John Davison, with additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud; Editing by Michael Georgy/Mark Heinrich)

Iraqis voting in first election since Islamic State

An Iraqi security member casts his vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – For the first time since driving out Islamic State, Iraqis go to the polls on Saturday in an election that will shape attempts to heal the country’s deep divisions and could shift the regional balance of power.

Iraq’s three main ethnic and religious groups, the majority Shi’ite Arabs and the minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds, have been at loggerheads for decades and the sectarian rifts are as apparent as ever 15 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The election of a new prime minister and parliament also takes place the same week U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, raising tensions between Iraq’s two main allies: Tehran and Washington.

A female security member casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A female security member casts her vote at a polling station two days before polls open to the public in a parliamentary election in Baghdad, Iraq May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

Whoever wins the May 12 election will face the challenge of rebuilding Iraq after four years of war with Islamic State, jump-starting a flagging economy, balancing the interests of powerful foreign patrons and maintaining the country’s fragile unity in the face of sectarian and separatist tensions.

“We want security. We have killings, theft, kidnappings. We never had this before. In the past 15 years the people have been destroyed,” said 29-year-old Khalid Radi, a laborer in Baghdad.

Incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is considered by analysts to be marginally ahead but victory is far from certain.

Even though he announced Islamic State’s defeat during his first four-year term, diffused sectarian tensions enflamed by his predecessor, and maintained Iraq’s unity in the face of a Kurdish independence bid, he faces a tough battle.

THREE-WAY RACE

Abadi has faced criticism about persistent government corruption, tough economic conditions and the austerity measures his cabinet introduced after the slide in global oil prices and to help pay for the fight against Islamic State.

He also cannot rely solely on votes from his community as the majority Shi’ite voter base is unusually split this year. Instead, he is looking to draw upon support from other groups.

Many, but not all, Sunnis see Abadi as a less sectarian alternative to his two main Shi’ite rivals and credit him with liberating their areas from Islamic State.

There’s bad blood between Abadi and the Kurds, however, after Baghdad imposed sanctions on the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region following its failed independence bid last year.

Even if Abadi’s Victory Alliance list wins the most seats he still has to navigate the long-winded and complicated backroom negotiations required to form a coalition government.

His two main challengers are his predecessor Nuri al-Maliki and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia commander Hadi al-Amiri.

Both have a more passionate voter base than Abadi, who is mostly appealing to more pragmatic voters who see him as having better relations with the outside world and a cross-sectarian appeal needed to avoid further bloodshed and attract investment.

Like Abadi, Amiri is running on a platform highlighting the victory against Islamic State, though the militia leader’s narrative is more compelling as he was a frontline commander and is viewed as war hero by many Shi’ites.

Maliki, who was sidelined after eight years in office in 2014 after losing a third of the country to Islamic State, is looking to make a political comeback.

In contrast to the cross-sectarian message of Abadi, Maliki is again posing as Iraq’s Shi’ite champion and is proposing to do away with the country’s unofficial power-sharing model in which all the main parties have cabinet representatives.

COALITION HORSE-TRADING

Ever since Saddam fell in 2003, ending decades of dominance by the Sunni minority, senior government positions have been unofficially split between the country’s main groups.

The post of prime minister has been reserved for a Shi’ite, the speaker for a Sunni, and the ceremonial presidency has gone to a Kurd – with all three being chosen by parliament.

More than 7,000 candidates in 18 provinces, or governorates, are running this year for 329 parliamentary seats.

The Iraqi constitution sets a 90-day deadline for forming a government after the election results are formally announced and the horse-trading can be protracted.

The new government will also have to cope with the simmering tension between the United States and Iran.

As prime minister, Abadi has won praise for his deft juggling of the competing and colliding interests of his two main backers. While his government maintains good relations with Iran, he is seen as balanced and Western diplomats say he would be the easiest candidate to work with.

Maliki, who pushed for U.S. troop withdrawals and Amiri, who speaks fluent Farsi and spent years in exile in Iran during the Saddam Hussein era, are both seen as much closer to Tehran.

DIVISIONS ALL ROUND

The election is also taking place in an atmosphere of division and disillusionment within Iraq’s three main groups.

The Shi’ite vote is split as many are unhappy with their leaders after 15 years in power that have only yielded violence and unemployment and left the country’s infrastructure crumbling.

But if the Shi’ites are split because they have too many leaders, Sunni Arabs are divided because they have none.

Sunnis are at their lowest point yet. Millions languish in displacement camps, many are out of pocket and trying to rebuild destroyed homes in cities reduced to rubble – and they feel collectively branded as Islamic State sympathizers.

The Sunni politicians that have held positions in government are largely discredited and there is no national Sunni leadership or party structure.

Iraq’s Kurds, meanwhile, blame their leaders for gambling away hard-won autonomy in the failed independence referendum and might punish them by voting for non-traditional parties, which in turn could undermine the historically unified Kurdish bloc’s position as kingmakers in parliament.

Voters go to the polls on Saturday, though security forces and Iraqis abroad started voting on Thursday. The electoral commission has said results will come “hours” after polls close.

Islamic State has threatened to attack polling stations amid a recent uptick in security incidents in areas retaken from the militants while many voters simply do not feel the election will bring any change.

“I propose the state just cancel parliament. Shake it and uproot it,” said 27-year-old mechanic Mustafa Tabbar using a popular Iraqi phrase meaning radical change.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; editing by David Clarke)