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Iraq's Kurds vote amid rows, regional tensions

About 2.8 million Kurds are eligible to vote across the three-province region of northern Iraq, and queues had already formed when polls opened

AFP , Saturday 21 Sep 2013

Iraq's Kurds voted Saturday in their first election in four years as their autonomous region grapples with disputes with Baghdad while fellow Kurds fight bloody battles in neighbouring Syria.

The election for the region's parliament comes as turmoil roiling the Middle East has raised renewed questions about the political future of the Kurdish nation as a whole.

The Kurds are spread across a number of neighbouring states, where they have long faced hostile governments but have found increasing space to pursue their aspirations to run their own affairs.

About 2.8 million Kurds are eligible to vote across the three-province region of northern Iraq, and queues had already formed when polls opened.

Some voters wore the traditional garb that is often reserved for special occasions, while many women wore full-length black abaya robes.

Polls were due to close at 5:00 pm (1400 GMT), although some reports indicated election officials were considering extending voting hours. Preliminary results are due in the coming days.

Observers and diplomats who visited multiple polling centres across the regional capital Arbil told AFP that they had seen no irregularities and that the election appeared to be proceeding well.

The campaign centred on calls for more to be done to fight corruption and improve the delivery of basic services, as well as on how the energy-rich region's oil revenues should be spent.

"The main problem ... is economic," said Mohammed Saleh.

"The cost of living now is high, and the people need more money. The new parliament needs to organise a programme for solving this."

The 54-year-old architect added: "For 20 years, our government has been trying to make services good for the cities, towns and even for the villages.

"But our country was ruined, it was destroyed — it needs reconstruction," he said, referring to the years of conflict the region suffered under the rule of executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The election, the first since July 2009, sees three main parties jostling for position in the 111-seat Kurdish parliament, with implications beyond Iraq.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional President Massoud Barzani is widely expected to win the largest number of seats, although it is unlikely to obtain a majority on its own.

"We have taken another step in the region to consolidate democracy," regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the president's nephew, said after casting his ballot.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is in government with the KDP, however faces a challenge from the Goran movement in its Sulaimaniyah province stronghold.

The challenge has been heightened by leadership questions as the party's veteran chief, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, recuperates in Germany from a stroke.

Internationally, the focus is likely to be on the region's drive for greater economic independence from the federal government, with which it is locked in multiple disputes.

Irbil has sought to establish a pipeline that would give it access to international energy markets, sent crude across the border to neighbouring Turkey, and signed deals with foreign energy firms.

It has also capitalised on its reputation for greater safety and stability, as well as a faster-growing economy than the rest of Iraq, to solicit investment independent of the federal government.

All this has drawn the ire of Baghdad, and the two sides are also locked in a protracted dispute over the Kurds' longstanding demands for the incorporation of other traditionally Kurdish-majority areas into their autonomous region.

The region has also become increasingly embroiled in the 30-month-old conflict in neighbouring Syria.

Clashes last month between Kurdish forces and jihadists seeking to secure a land corridor connecting them to Iraq pushed tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds across the border, seeking refuge in Iraq's Kurdish region.

Barzani has threatened to intervene in the Syrian conflict to protect Kurdish civilians, although officials have since backtracked on those remarks.

Iraqi Kurdistan enjoys a high level of autonomy from Baghdad, and the regional parliament has passed laws on a wide range of issues.

Kurdistan also operates its own security forces and visa regime and has control over an array of other responsibilities.

The Kurdish authorities boast that the region enjoys greater freedom than the rest of Iraq, but their human rights record has still come in for criticism.

Ahead of the polls, attacks on Goran supporters left one person dead and several wounded.

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