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Sun 26 Jul 2009 12:48 AM

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Iraqi Kurds flock to polls amid tensions with Baghdad

Regional leaders locked in dispute with Baghdad over land and oil set to retain grip.

Iraq's Kurds cast their votes Saturday in presidential and legislative polls expected to confirm the grip on power of regional leaders locked in dispute with Baghdad over land and oil.Nearly 80 percent of the voting population went to the polls, with queues forming outside many polling stations across Iraqi Kurdistan in what election officials insisted was a transparent vote.

Preliminary counting began Saturday evening, but final results are not expected for several days, as ballots must be collected in the regional capital Arbil before being sent to Baghdad for the official count.

The entrance into the fray of a new opposition party - Goran, which means Change in Kurdish - added interest to the contest during which the regional president was being chosen by popular vote for the first time.

Incumbent Massud Barzani is tipped to retain the post while his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are expected to sweep parliamentary polls.

An enthusiastic cross-section of voters appeared to be backing Change party chief Nusherwan Mustafa, a wealthy entrepreneur and former PUK deputy leader who is bidding to break the PUK-KDP duopoly, as are a raft of small parties.

Kurds are increasingly concerned about corruption, with many voicing support for change after decades of PUK and KDP dominance.

"This is the first time in my life I feel that I'm actually participating in elections that offer choice and real competition," said Zeez Ahmad Hassan, an engineer from Sulaimaniyah, the region's second city after Arbil.

Hassan, 44, said he would vote for Mustafa because "Kurdistan badly needs change and renewal."

But Shilan Othman, 36, told AFP that she would cast her ballot for the joint PUK-KDP list, saying its "victory is as clear as the light of the sun in a blue sky."

Security was tight at polling stations across Kurdistan, despite the relative safety of the region compared to the rest of Iraq.

Before the close of voting, a list comprised of four communist and Islamist parties complained of "fraud" and accused the PUK and KDP of bussing unregistered voters to polling stations to cast ballots.

Those claims were dismissed by Hamdia al-Husseini, head of the electoral department at Iraq's electoral commission, telling an Arbil news conference: "The election was transparent."

Citing preliminary figures, Husseini said that overall turnout was 78.5 percent.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki described the election as "another step in building a democratic Iraq" and said they "provide an opportunity to resolve all problems."

Talabani, former deputy prime minister Barham Saleh and Mustafa cast their votes in Sulaimaniyah, while Barzani voted at a summer resort north of the regional capital Arbil.

"We hope that these elections will be a first step to solving issues with Baghdad," Barzani told reporters after voting.

"I will work to get back the disputed areas."

In the run-up to the vote tensions heightened between Barzani and the central government over Kurdish claims to 16 disputed areas along Kurdistan's border with the rest of Iraq.

Barzani insisted during campaigning he will not "compromise" on the Kurds' longstanding claims to the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Kurdish peshmerga rebels who had fought the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein are now deployed alongside Iraqi army soldiers, triggering a tense face-off that has raised the prospect of armed conflict.

Disagreements over oil rights have hamstrung exploitation of much of Iraq's massive proven reserves and long-delayed hydrocarbons law, prompting fierce Kurdish criticism.

On June 1, the Kurdish administration began exporting oil for the first time, but Baghdad is contesting the region's right to sign contracts without central government approval.

In Washington on Thursday, Maliki acknowledged that these disputes are among "the most dangerous issues" facing his government, but said he expects to resolve the standoff.

Saturday's vote was held six months after provincial elections took place in the rest of Iraq, except for Kirkuk, where a date for polls has yet to be set.

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