|Some Iraqis have demonstrated against what they describe as Kurdish influence in Mosul, the capital of the northern province of Nineveh, and the proposed Kurdish constitution [EPA]
Tensions between ruling Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians in the northern Iraqi province of Nineveh are threatening to spill over into ethnic violence and reverse security gains made in the region since the US-led invasion in 2003.
The chances of the Sunni-Arab al-Hadbaa party and the Kurdish Nineveh Brotherhood group reaching a power-sharing deal appear more difficult, after both sides failed to reach an agreement at specially-convened conferences in September this year.
Brotherhood List councillors are boycotting the new Mosul-based provincial administration dominated by al-Hadbaa, which won the largest share of the vote in provincial elections held earlier this year.
The Brotherhood won 12 of the 37 council seats and are demanding two of the top three positions – that of vice-governor and vice-president of the provincial council.
The current vice-governor, however, is a Kurdish member of the al-Hadbaa party who is not affiliated with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and has been a native of Mosul for generations.
Meanwhile, the al-Hadbaa party is running as a member of Iyad Allawi's nationalist Iraqiya Coalition in the March 7 parliamentary election. If the coalition wins in Nineveh and Mosul, as analysts predict, tensions with the Kurds could be further soured.
The long-running conflict in northern Iraq is rooted in Arab concerns following the US-led invasion that the Kurds intend to formalise the de facto annexation of disputed territories to the semi-autonomous KRG.
In turn, the Kurds are wary of Arab-dominance in local politics and accuse the new provincial administration of sidelining ethnic Kurd interests and allowing Nineveh to become a base for various armed groups.
Following reports that the Kurdish boycott was moving toward the establishment of breakaway local councils, Athil al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab and governor of Nineveh province, made it clear any "independent" bodies would be dissolved.
However, Mohammad Ihsan, the KRG's minister for extra-regional affairs, denies that any Kurdish leaders have threatened to form breakaway local councils.
"There are about 16 local administrative councils that have boycotted dealing with the new governor, they did not threaten independence," Ihsan insists.
"These are two different legal concepts; when you boycott a process and when you declare independence. Legally they have the right to [boycott]. We hope that they [come to an agreement] to provide better services for all people, whether Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Christian or Yezidis."
For his part, Ihsan says the Brotherhood is boycotting the new provincial administration because "they humiliate Kurds and never allow them to hold any position in government, although they won 33 per cent of the vote".
He also alleges: "This is not legal and we are condemning that. And it's not the right way to build a new Iraq after dictatorship."
But al-Nujaifi dismisses claims that the new administration is biased against Kurdish interests.
"There was a round of negotiations with the Nineveh Brotherhood List. I have personally invited them to visit the Nineveh provincial council to discuss the five-year investment plan the council is currently discussing," he says.
"I insisted on their participation because we are about to prepare a five-year plan and do not want them to miss the discussions on these issues."
Kurdish 'territorial ambitions'
"They [the Kurds] are basically claiming the lands that their militias occupied by force under a US umbrella since in 2003"
Usama Abd Al Aziz, al-Hadbaa spokesman
Usama Abd Al Aziz, spokesman for al-Hadbaa, goes further and blames the Kurds for the tension in the northern part of the country.
He insists the Kurds "have territorial ambitions" and that their proposed new constitution for the region would see more land pass from national to KRG control.
"Their [the Kurdish] parties participated in writing and voting for the Iraqi constitution, whose article 143 stipulates that the borders of Iraqi provinces remain unchanged to those prior to the invasion of Iraq," he says.
"They are basically claiming the lands that their militias occupied by force under a US umbrella since in 2003."
Al-Nujaifi managed to further damage already strained relations after demanding, post-election, that the Kurds get rid of all of their standing politicians and replace them with ones that would put Nineveh's needs above ethnic loyalties.
But perhaps the most divisive issue is the presence of Kurdish Peshmerga forces – armed fighters loyal to the KRG – throughout northern Iraq.
Al-Nujaifi has called for a withdrawal of Peshmerga forces from all areas of the province where they control security in return for accepting "the principle of sharing power in the province".
"One of the main problems is the Peshmerga, especially outside of Mosul where security is weak because there is more than one power and authority... we think the presence of the Peshmerga is political and poses a political pressure on the citizens and a confiscation of the voters’ will in the province," he says.
US commanders have proposed creating a joint Peshmerga-Arab security force to overcome the impasse of who polices Mosul and the rest of the province.
While the Brotherhood agreed to this proposal, al-Nujaifi has ruled it out.
Peshmerga 'key obstacle'
"There are about 16 local administrative councils that have boycotted dealing with the new governor, [but] they did not threaten independence"
Mohammad Ihsan, KRG minister for extra-regional affairs
However, Ihsan denies the Peshmerga are a threatening presence, insisting they are part of the security apparatus in northern Iraq.
"They have legal status. They cannot say or do anything that does not come from the Iraqi Ministry in Baghdad... They are based there on the request of former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Alawi, and Peshmerga are Iraqis like any other Iraqi and they are performing their jobs, providing security for the people," he says.
Al-Nujaifi described recent talks with the Kurds as making "some progress" but underlined the continued presence of Peshmerga forces remained the key obstacle to agreeing a power-sharing deal.
The KRG's Ihsan also welcomed negotiations, but stressed Peshmerga forces were vital to securing the region: "We hope that al-Hadbaa List will be more cooperative and more serious in these discussions in order to fix the problems we have."
In the meantime, Mosul residents say they cautiously welcome talks between the Arab and Kurdish parties which have, in the interim, increased security in the city.
Since 2006, Mosul has been one of the most violent cities in Iraq, as militias chased out of Baghdad and Falluja took advantage of the security vacuum in the north and set up a base of operations there.
But in the past nine months violence has dropped by 44 per cent, US military commanders say.
Earlier last week, Iraq security forces arrested 150 alleged members of al-Qaeda and other armed militias in Mosul.
Al-Nujaifi says that residents of Mosul have started to come out of their homes and enjoy parks and public areas.
"Now there's a huge difference - the police and army are deployed day and night," he says.
"Many people in the city feel that they have gotten their lives back."