Incumbents ahead in Iraq Kurd vote, but challenged

Incumbents ahead in Iraq Kurd vote, but challenged

Powerful Kurdish ruling parties appeared to fend off a surprisingly strong opposition challenge in weekend elections in Iraqi Kurdistan, locked in a bitter feud with Baghdad authorities over land and oil, Reuters reported.

Unofficial reports showed Kurdish President Masoud Barzani won 70 percent of the presidential vote in Saturday's elections in the largely autonomous northern region, said Fouad Hussein, a senior official in Barzani's office.

He said the two-party ruling alliance -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd -- received 60 percent of votes for the next 111-member Kurdish parliament.

Official preliminary results had been expected late on Monday, but electoral officials postponed the announcement.

Underlying the election are larger questions about whether Kurds, who make up a fifth of Iraqis, can repair deeply strained ties with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad as Kurds assert rights to the oil-producing Kirkuk region and other disputed areas lying outside current borders of their relatively peaceful enclave.

No matter the results of the election, Kurds are expected to keep up their quest for control of Kirkuk, Iraq's northern oil hub that is an uneasy ethnic mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

They are also pushing ahead with an aggressive strategy for exploiting their own oil and gas fields, pitting them against the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

The feud has held critical energy legislation hostage in parliament and spooked potential foreign investors. It may also pose the most serious threat to Iraq's stability just as the sectarian violence unleashed by the 2003 invasion fades.

The government of Shi'ite Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is not on speaking terms with Barzani, has praised the vote as democratic. Turnout was close to 80 percent.

Fadhel Omar, a spokesman for the ruling party list, said he expected the two parties to get 63 seats, based on unofficial results not including early voting by soldiers. "We are happy the election process has concluded successfully," he said.

But even senior officials from the joint list acknowledged they were surprised by the strong showing from opposition parties that have made political reform their central message, especially around PUK stronghold Sulaimaniya.

The Change list, headed by former PUK official Noshirwan Mustafa, is expecting 27 to 30 parliamentary seats, said Abdil Mamand, a Change official in Arbil.

Shaho Said, another Change official, claimed the list came in first place in Sulaimaniya and second across Kurdistan.

Reform and Services, another opposition grouping, said it expected to get 14 to 17 seats in parliament.

Such results could mark a turning point for Kurdistan, where political alternatives to the two powerful parties have been scant and where critics complain of a lack of transparency, of media intimidation and of security force abuses.

Mamand, like other opposition officials, said the vote was marred by irregularities, such as voting by people without proper IDs. "If the fraud wasn't happening, we think we could have had more than 35 seats," he said.

The electoral commission has said it is looking into several hundred complaints, but did not expect any of them to alter the outcome of the vote. It said the vote was largely problem-free.

The vote was not entirely without incident. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the president's nephew, said that one person was killed and 12 were wounded on Sunday evening when election revellers began firing shots into the air.

Opposition officials painted a more sinister picture, accusing ruling party supporters of trying to break into offices and threatening them. Kurdistan security chief Ismat Argoshi said they were "young people expressing their joy".

The prime minister denied any KDP-PUK involvement in the acts of "anarchy" and vowed to punish those responsible.

The United Nations mission in Iraq praised an overall lack of violence in the elections and urged transparency in counting ballots and investigating complaints.

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