U.S. fears violence ahead of Kurdistan regional elections

May 5, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Iraq's semi-autonomous northern region of Kurdistan will hold parliamentary elections on July 25, officials said Tuesday.

Tensions between the Kurdish regional government and Iraq's central government in Baghdad have been rising, and U.S. officials have said they fear the disputes could escalate into armed conflict.

None of Iraq's three mostly Kurdish provinces held elections in January, when the rest of Iraq chose new provincial councils, and the July elections could help further the Kurds' efforts to control their northern territory and the revenues from Iraq's northern oil fields.

Roughly 2.5 million people are eligible to vote in the elections, though registration is ongoing, said Musab al Mudaras, a spokesman for Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission.

Voters won't vote for individual candidates, Mudaras said. Instead, they'll choose from the 42 political parties that have registered to run. Winning parties will decide whom to name to the regional parliament's 111 seats after the election results are announced.

For decades, two parties have dominated Kurdistan's politics: the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Recently, some Kurds have begun demanding a shift from the two-party system, and many expect new challengers to take seats this year.

"We're afraid this election will witness violence and clashes between those competing for power," said Sardashat Aziz, a 24-year-old schoolteacher from the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. "The electoral map is different this time . . . (The KDP and the PUK) aren't ready to give up their authority."

Local and international observers will be invited to ensure that the balloting is carried out fairly and without fraud, Mudaras said.

Regional parliament members serve four-year terms and are slated to choose a new Kurdish president soon after they take office.

The last time Kurdistan voters went to the polls was in 2005, and Kurdish parliamentary elections were initially scheduled for this month but were delayed after officials said they needed more time to prepare.

Kurdistan has remained fairly peaceful for the past six years, though separatist rebels in the region's northern mountains routinely fight with Turkey and Iran. In recent days, Iran has launched air strikes into northern Kurdish villages where rebels from the Kurdistan Workers' Party live and train.

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