Friday, July 24, 2009

Iraq's Kurdish area begins voting, a key test of government

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Soldiers, prisoners and hospital patients voted Thursday ahead of weekend elections in Iraq's Kurdish region, which is locked in a dispute with the central government over oil-rich land. For Kurds, the election tests a political establishment that has kept the region relatively safe but faces allegations of corruption. In Washington, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the divisions between the Kurds and the rest of Iraq are one of the most dangerous challenges facing his country. He said the political divide must be resolved by constitutional means, not by force. One flash point for conflict is the disputed city of Kirkuk, where a bomb exploded near a police patrol Thursday. One civilian was killed and four were injured, said police Brig. Sarhat Qader. A coalition of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, two parties that have dominated the self-ruled region for decades, faces a challenge from new opposition alliances seeking to capitalize on complaints about authoritarian conduct and corruption. The opposition is expected to make some inroads in Saturday's vote, though Kurds have traditionally worked to maintain a unified front in conflicts with other Iraqi factions. Iraq's election commission said it could take a week to count the results. Also, Iraqi lawmakers agreed Thursday to move the national parliamentary election up from Jan. 30 to Jan. 16 to avoid conflicting with the Shiite religious observance of Ashoura, the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, said Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah. The election, which will determine the 275-member parliament, is a key test of Iraqi efforts to build democracy and foster political reconciliation. In the Kurdish area, 2.5 million eligible voters in the region's three northern provinces — Irbil, Dahuk and Sulaimaniyah — will elect their 111-seat parliament and president. Prisoners, people in hospitals and members of the Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga were among those allowed to vote early. "I have the right to vote, to feel no different from anyone outside the prison," said Nisreen Muhammad, an inmate who voted in a Sulaimaniyah prison. "We all have the same right."

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