High turnout in elections in Iraq’s Kurdish region

July 26th, 2009 - 3:12 am ICT by IANS  

Arbil (Iraq), July 26 (DPA) Voter turnout was high in parliamentary and presidential elections in northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region Saturday, with authorities allowing an additional two hours for voting before polls closed at 8 p.m. (1600 GMT).
Preliminary estimates showed that some 70 percent of the region’s 2.5 million eligible voters were expected to cast their ballots in the election, officials from the Independent High Electoral Commission said on television.

Official results are not expected until early next week.

Incumbent president Massoud Barzani cast his vote in the region’s capital, Arbil, some 300 km north of Baghdad.

“I congratulate the people of Kurdistan and Iraq on this day. We consider this day is an Iraqi and Kurdish wedding celebration. We feel very happy that people of Kurdistan are heading to the polls to cast their votes,” Barzani told reporters.

“We hope these elections would help solve the problems and differences with Baghdad,” he was quoted by Peyamner News Agency as saying.

Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani echoed those sentiments.

“I hope the disputes between Kurdistan and Baghdad can be settled soon,” he said in remarks carried by the Qatar-based al-Jazeera satellite network.

Most Kurdish observers expected an alliance between Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to sweep the polls, despite the entrance of a new, reformist group called “Change”, led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former KDP official.

Thousands have turned out for Mustafa’s rallies in recent days, filling the streets of northern Iraqi cities, sounding their car horns and waving the movement’s trademark blue flags.

Barzani on Saturday said his priorities for his next term in office included bringing disputed areas claimed by Kurdish and Arab Iraqis under Kurdish control.

Chief among those areas is the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. While polls were closing to the north, a roadside bomb exploded as police patrolled Kirkuk’s Corniche Street, police Colonel Salah Sabr told DPA. Five policemen and one civilian were wounded in the blast, he said.

Last month, the Kurdish parliament approved a draft constitution that defined the borders of Kurdistan, including parts of the northern Iraqi provinces of Diyala, Nineveh and al-Ta’mim, which contains the disputed city of Kirkuk and nearby oil fields worth millions.

The parliament initially intended to put the draft to a referendum Saturday, but indefinitely postponed the referendum in an extraordinary session July 9, following pressure from Arab Iraqi parties and the US.

The disputed areas bordering the Kurdish semi-autonomous region are not currently formally administered by the Kurdish regional government, but Kurdish political parties and militias exercise considerable influence there.

Many Iraqi Kurds hope to make Kirkuk, the current capital of al-Ta’mim, the capital of a future independent Kurdish state, and to fuel the economy with its nearby oil fields.

Control of Kirkuk and its environs has long been the subject of sore dispute in Iraq. Saddam Hussein’s government systematically sought to change the ethnic composition of the area by forcing Kurds to resettle elsewhere and settling Arab Iraqis in the province in their stead.

Iraqi politicians have several times deferred tackling the thorny issue of control of the region, and its oil. The province did not participate in January’s provincial council elections after politicians representing groups with rival claims failed to agree on language governing the conduct of the provincial elections there.

Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution deals with the status of Kirkuk and other disputed territories, by way of enshrining an article of the administrative law the transitional government

instituted after the 2003 US-led invasion of the country.

According to that law, the Iraqi government “shall act expeditiously to take measures to remedy the injustice caused by the previous regime’s practices in altering the demographic character of

certain regions, including Kirkuk”.

But the law also defers “permanent resolution of disputed territories, including Kirkuk” until after a series of measures have been taken to accomplish those goals, and until “a fair and transparent census has been conducted”.

The Iraqi government has yet to carry out such a census.

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