- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 26, 2009

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq | The Kurdish political establishment faced its first real test in an election Saturday for a president and 111-seat parliament in a semiautonomous region mired in a bitter dispute with Baghdad over oil and land that threatens Iraq’s stability.

Mainstream groups were widely expected to maintain their hold on power, but voters expressed hope a strong opposition challenge would lead to reforms amid allegations of corruption and financial improprieties among the entrenched political parties that have held sway in this northern area for decades.

“I do believe that we will see a more activist parliament because of the active role of the opposition party,” said Hewa Ahmed Hussein, a 34-year-old merchant in Irbil.

At the heart of the push for reform was a group called “Change,” which is led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former top official in one of the mainstream parties. Its success in campaigning forced an alliance between the two dominant parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

The opposition was expected to make some inroads in the parliament, but Iraq’s electoral commission said it could take a week to count the results. Polling hours were extended to accommodate a large turnout for the first regional election since 2005.

The Kurds gained autonomy after rising up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, aided by a U.S.-British no-fly zone that helped keep the now-deceased dictator’s armed forces at bay.

The Kurdish region has enjoyed relative calm since the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam, but ethnic rivalries have fueled attacks in nearby areas, particularly the disputed city of Kirkuk.

President Obama has pressured Iraq’s central government to be more flexible about sharing power and allowing provincial governments a greater role in decision-making. But the government is wary about ceding too much authority to the Kurds for fear that they will attempt to secede at some point and take the region’s wealth of oil resources with them.

Political leaders had hoped to hold a referendum during the local elections on a proposed constitution, which lays claim to disputed areas outside the three Kurdish provinces, including Kirkuk. But national authorities scuttled that plan because Iraq’s Arabs view it as an effort to expand Kurdish authority.

The Kurds also have clashed with the central government over a law outlining how Iraq’s oil wealth should be divided among the country’s religious and ethnic groups, and who has final say in developing the oil fields in the northern region.

Security was tightened for Saturday’s election, and the 2.5 million eligible voters were only allowed to walk or take government authorized buses to polling centers. Polling centers were also set up in Baghdad for Kurdish lawmakers and others to cast their ballots.

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