Reform party makes gains among Iraq Kurds

A Kurdish opposition group has made an surprisingly strong showing in elections for the Kurdish self-rule region in northern Iraq, tapping into widespread frustration over alleged corruption and intimidation by the longtime ruling establishment.

Despite their internal differences, Kurds were united in their hard line in disputes with Iraq’s Arabs over oil-rich territory, which threaten to erupt into new violence even as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw its forces by the end of 2011.

Experts said the political maneuvering only served to harden the Kurdish nationalist rhetoric and could make a compromise with the Arab-dominated central government unlikely until after next year’s national elections.

Official results from Saturday’s vote for a regional president and 111-seat parliament were not expected until later this week.

But the opposition group called Gorran, Kurdish for “Change” — which touts itself as a reformist party — said early projections showed it had made major inroads in the parliament with a win in the city of Sulaimaniyah.

Two mainstream parties have long dominated power in the northern region: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. They have been credited with keeping their region relatively prosperous and largely free of the violence that raged elsewhere in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The two parties, which competed on a joint list in the election, conceded the reformist list had performed well but stressed they expected to retain their overall majority. The region’s president, KDP chief Massoud Barzani, also claimed victory in his bid for re-election — the first time the president was directly chosen by the people instead of by lawmakers.

But voters have grown increasingly impatient with allegations of corruption, nepotism, media intimidation and heavy-handed behavior by private security details.

“I voted for the Change list to have somebody in parliament who can monitor the government’s performance,” Othman Ahmed, a 31-year-old lawyer in Sulaimaniyah, said Monday. “Kurdish society was in need of social change after years of corruption and monopolization by the two main parties.”

Still, the complaints were focused on local governance, and all the rival parties shared a nationalist platform in the face of rising tensions with the central government in Baghdad.

The Kurds have been locked in a dispute with Baghdad over control of oil resources and a faultline of contested territory in northern Iraq, particularly the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. The disagreements have stalled a national oil law considered vital to encourage foreign investment. U.S. officials have warned that Arab-Kurdish tensions could erupt into a new front in the Iraq conflict and jeopardize security gains elsewhere.

Separatist sentiment is high in Kurdistan, which gained autonomy after rising up against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1991. The region was protected from his forces by a U.S.-British no-fly zone until Saddam’s fall in 2003.

Kurdish leaders say they are committed to staying in a unified Iraq, particularly since an independence push could alienate neighboring Iran, Syria and Turkey, which have their own Kurdish minorities. But Iraqi Kurdish politicians must answer to the strong nationalist sentiment among Kurds in the disputes.

“We are critical of the ruling parties because of their poor administration and corruption as well as unfair distribution of wealth,” said Mohammed Tawfiq Rahim, a senior official with the Change party. “But when it comes to the case of Kirkuk and other disputed areas and the constitution, we are united with the government because this is the destiny of our Kurdish area.”

Last week, President Barack Obama urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be more flexible about sharing power and allowing provincial governments a greater role in decision-making.

But a compromise has proved elusive and Iraq’s parliament exempted the Kirkuk area from provincial elections earlier this year because the different ethnic groups could not agree on how to share power.

National authorities also scuttled a plan to hold a referendum on a proposed Kurdish constitution on the same day as the parliamentary vote. The constitution lays claim to Kirkuk and other disputed areas outside the three Kurdish provinces making up the region, and Iraqi Arabs view it as an effort to expand Kurdish authority.

James Danly, the managing director of the Institute for the Study of War who wrote a report ahead of the Kurdish elections, said the sides could only be expected to harden their stances ahead of national elections scheduled for Jan. 16.

“Baghdad is going to be less likely to adopt a cooperative attitude as long as the Kurds are in the middle of an election and all of them from all parties are using similar stump speeches about Kurdish independence,” he said. “I think there can (be a solution) but it certainly is going to be somewhat less likely in the middle of political turmoil like this.”

“Change” is led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former PUK insider who broke with the party after he was unable to push through reforms. The move led to sharp divisions within Talabani’s party, which has its stronghold in Sulaimaniyah.

The group also enjoyed minor success in the two other provinces of Dahuk and Irbil, according to the unofficial returns, but Barzani and his party appeared to maintain their hold on the areas.

Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission said nearly 80 percent of 2.5 million eligible voters cast ballots. There were allegations of violations, but the panel overseeing the vote said the balloting was largely sound.

Associated Press Writer Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.


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