Iraqi Kurds end voting; feud with Baghdad looms

Iraqi Kurds voted on Saturday in polls expected to keep President Masoud Barzani in power in Kurdistan and unlikely to allay voters’ worries about corruption or end a feud with Baghdad over land and oil.

Ballots were provisionally counted after voting was extended for one hour in the largely autonomous region. A final tally is expected to take at least two or three days.

Barzani, a former guerrilla leader, looked certain to defeat five competitors, the first time the relatively peaceful northern enclave has elected a president directly.

Turnout was high, at 78,5% across Kurdistan, the Electoral Commission said.

Women smiled as they showed purple-stained fingers to TV cameras after voting.

The region’s powerful ruling parties — Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd — are running jointly against 23 alliances of smaller parties.

”The process was carried out successfully,” Electoral Commission chief Faraj al-Haidari said in a news conference.

”Generally speaking, there were no violations, no polling station closed and the process was never interrupted.”

During the campaign, Kurdish leaders have churned out fiery rhetoric on claims to territories they contest with Baghdad’s Arab-led government.

The row over oil-producing Kirkuk and other disputed areas is seen as a major threat to Iraq’s long-term stability as sectarian violence fades. But many Kurds support Barzani’s hardline approach against Baghdad, from where Saddam Hussein launched deadly attacks against Kurds in the 1980s.

”Kirkuk for Kurdish people is a red line. No parties competing can be seen to back down,” said Ferhad Mohammed, deputy editor of Kurdistan’s weekly Gulan magazine.

The Kurd-Arab row has held up critical energy laws in the national Parliament and complicates government efforts to secure investment in the oil sector, the anchor of Iraq’s economy.

”I am hoping for … a return of our ransacked land,” said Mohammed Salar (60) a government worker in Sulaimaniya.

Barzani, wearing a red turban and baggy Kurdish trousers, voted near his mountain compound in Salahuddin.

He renewed his defence of a plan laid out in Iraq’s 2005 Constitution for settling control of Kirkuk, even though Arab politicians and the United Nations have backed away from it.

”I will never compromise on Kirkuk,” he said.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the president’s nephew, signalled their stance may soften after the polls.

”We hope after the election we will be able to sit down at the negotiating table with Baghdad and resolve the issue of Kirkuk … We as Kurds are willing to show flexibility.”

All change?
Speaking in Washington, Iraq Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, an Arab, said the vote would ”have a big role in solving problems and differences we inherited from the past regime”.

Critics accuse the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of widespread corruption, abuses by security forces, media intimidation and fostering an atmosphere that stifles dissent.

”[Politicians] just put money in their own pockets. We need new people in power,” said Hameed Abu-Bakr (24).

An alliance hoping to capitalise on disenchantment is the Change list, run by independent candidate Noshirwan Mustafa.

While the polls are not expected to end the region’s two-party hegemony, Change officials hope for up to a third of the 111 seats in the Kurdish Parliament.

”We are seeking to win the elections but, no matter what, we will consider ourselves winners because for the first time there has been fierce competition,” Mustafa told Reuters TV.

His party complained of scattered voting problems, but the reports could not be independently confirmed.

Abdilselam Berwari of the KDP Political Studies Centre said he expected PUK-KDP would have 65% to 75% of the vote.

The alliance is trying to shape its own message of reform and touts the relative prosperity of Kurdistan, spared the chaos most of Iraq suffered since the 2003 US-led invasion.

”Under Saddam, we had nothing. Thanks to Barzani, now we have growth and democracy,” said Arbil voter Herman Amil.

Gareth Stansfield, an expert on Kurdistan at the University of Exeter, said even a strong Change showing was unlikely to redefine the uneasy relationship with Baghdad.

The Change list’s ”position concerning the status of the Kurds in Iraq is no different to that of the major parties … indeed, at times it can be said that they are more ‘pro-Kurdish’ than the KDP and PUK leaders”, he said. – Reuters

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