Page last updated at 12:48 GMT, Saturday, 6 March 2010

New Kurdish party to challenge polls

As Iraq prepares to hold the third general election since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003, the BBC's Jim Muir meets Kurds in the north of the country, who hold roughly a fifth of the seats in parliament. A new party, Goran, has been set up and plans to challenge those Kurds who have been dominant players so far.

"We used to hide up in the hills and sleep during the day, and then as soon as it got dark, we'd slip down here and blow up the pipelines." It was with some glee that Mam Rostam recounted his exploits, as we drove through the flat plain towards Kirkuk, with oil pipes snaking alongside the road.

Mam Rostam
Where is all the money going?
Mam Rostam
Goran candidate

He must have been a slip of a lad at the time. Although he is a grizzled old warrior now, he was talking about 1969, when he first took up arms with the Kurdish Peshmerga guerrillas against the central government in Baghdad.

Through most of the 1970s and 1980s, he was fighting underground in this part of northern Iraq, harrying the government forces.

I first came across Mam Rostam during the upheavals of 1991. Saddam Hussein's army had just been kicked out of Kuwait. The Shias in the south, and the Kurds in the north, had risen up.

But Saddam struck back, and the entire Kurdish population fled to the mountains, fearing the kind of poison gas attack that killed thousands in Halabja just three years earlier.

The Peshmerga guerrillas stayed behind and fought the Iraqi army as it tried to advance.

Remembering the swap

That's when I met the charismatic Mam Rostam and his men, at a remote mountain crossroads somewhere near Suleimaniya, which was in government hands.

We made a swap that we've both always remembered. I gave him my treasured flashlight, which he still has, in exchange for a Kalashnikov bayonet which I still have. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Mam Rostam belonged to one of the two big Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, led by Jalal Talabani.

Jalal Talabani, Iraqi president
Goran hopes to dent President Talabani's support

Their battle with the government forces was almost a personal one with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He was the regime, the man every Kurd blamed for Halabja and the broader campaign in which scores of thousands of Kurds were killed.

That battle ended with Saddam's overthrow in 2003 and his eventual capture and execution.

But old habits apparently die hard.

Mam Rostam is still fighting the Iraqi president. Only now, that president is his former boss, Jalal Talabani.

Oil conundrum

And Mam Rostam is not fighting him with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades, but with smiles and waves and handshakes as he goes around on the campaign trail for Goran, the Kurdish Movement for Change and Reform.

As we drove through the decrepit, dirty streets of Kirkuk, and slithered through the mud in poverty-stricken nearby villages, Mam Rostam explained why.

Goran will certainly take some seats in the Baghdad parliament, changing the Kurdish profile there

"Is this really an oil city?" he asked. "Where is all the money going?"

And he poured forth the litany of accusations - corruption, nepotism, lack of transparency - that are levelled against the two big parties by Goran and many Kurds disillusioned with PUK and KDP monopolisation of power and privilege over the years, their division of the spoils.

It is easy to see why there is anger.

The big Kurdish cities - Irbil, Suleimaniya, Duhok - have been superficially transformed by a boom which has brought gleaming malls and exclusive gated communities.

But exclusive is the word. Many have been left out.

Access to this charmed world and the enterprise that brought it about, is very hard without going through the party elites, which control virtually everything.

That is why Goran, the Change Movement, has struck such a chord.

Goran has already shaken the political landscape in Kurdish areas, by taking 25 of the 100 seats in the regional parliament last year.

The Goran leader, Nowshirwan Mustafa, another Peshmerga veteran, used to be number two to Jalal Talabani in the PUK until he split off, like Mam Rostam.

if there is fighting to be done in the future, political or otherwise, it is a fair bet that Mam Rostam will be first into the fray

So the main inroads that Goran has made have been in areas of traditional PUK influence, such as Suleimaniya.

Now, contesting an Iraqi national election for the first time, Goran could make further gains at the PUK's expense in Kirkuk as well, to the discomfort of President Talabani.

Goran will certainly take some seats in the Baghdad parliament, changing the Kurdish profile there.

It is too early to say whether this is a real revolution, or just a corrective movement.

But the Kurdish story is far from over.

And if there is fighting to be done in the future, political or otherwise, it is a fair bet that Mam Rostam will be first into the fray.

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