Iraqi Kurds go to polls, feud with Baghdad looms

Iraqi Kurds vote today in elections expected to keep President Masoud Barzani in power in Kurdistan but unlikely to erase voter concerns about corruption or end a bitter feud with Baghdad over land and oil.

Polls opened at 8am (0500 GMT) in the largely autonomous northern region, and will close at 6pm (1500 GMT), after which ballots will be flown to Baghdad for tallying. The official count is expected to take 2-3 days without challenges.

The people of the relatively peaceful enclave will elect a president directly this time, unlike 2005 polls that selected a parliament alone, and former guerrilla leader Barzani looks certain to defeat his five competitors.

Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the region's most powerful parties, will run for seats on a joint list against 23 alliances of smaller parties.

As the poll drew near, Barzani and other Kurdish leaders churned out fiery rhetoric about claims to territories they contest with Baghdad's Arab-led government.

Diplomats see the row over oil-producing Kirkuk and other disputed areas 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 is the most important thing to Kurds," said Yunis Mohammed Qader, 39, outside the sweltering oven of his pizza takeaway. "Only Barzani and the KDP-PUK can bring it back."

The Kurd-Arab row has held up critical energy legislation in the national parliament and overshadows government efforts to secure foreign investment in the important oil sector.

Barzani, wearing a red turban and Kurds' traditional baggy trousers, held up a purple finger after voting in Salahuddin, where he lives on a mountaintop enclave near the capital Arbil.

He defended Kurds' insistence on steps laid out in Iraq's 2005 constitution for settling control of Kirkuk, an uneasy mix of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, even though Arab politicians and even the United Nations have backed away from that plan.

"I will never compromise on Kirkuk," he said after voting.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the president's nephew, signalled that Kurdish leaders might be able to take a different tack once elections were behind them.

"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."

Although Kurds have long dreamed of their own state and such rallying cries used to define Kurdish politics, many Kurds now worry more about problems closer to home, like graft.

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

"They feed on our money. They point to buildings and say it's development, but do you think most Kurds can go in that hotel?" Haider Abdul said of Kurdish leaders, pointing at a fancy Arbil hotel in the distance.

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

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

"Our priority is to clean up the system and give it back to the people," said Safin Malaqara, head of the Change campaign in Arbil. "The ruling parties haven't put any oversight in place on the region's budget. God knows where all that money goes."

Sensitive to these criticisms, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who heads the campaign of the joint KDP-PUK list, has made transparency and accountability a campaign priority.

Officials from KDP-PUK alliance point out that Kurds are for the most part proud of their relatively prosperous enclave, which has flourished while the rest of Iraq descended into bloody chaos and insurgency after the 2003 US-led invasion.

"Kurdistan was a desert, we had nothing. Now look," said Abdilselam Berwari, head of the KDP Political Studies centre. "I won't say we're angels... but the two parties have brought successes to Kurdistan. The people know that."

A PUK nominee will replace Nechirvan Barzani thanks to a deal between the two parties, which waged war in the 1990s.

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