At polls, Kurds seek stability

Longing for a sense of autonomy, ballots are cast in Iraq with Kurdistan in mind


ALTUN KOPRI, Iraq -- As lines of voters snaked out of two polling stations along the main road here in northern Iraq, and as celebratory gunfire resounded through the neighborhood, a group of children chanted Kurdish songs and waved Kurdish flags as they barreled through the middle of this village.

By all appearances here, yesterday's elections for national parliamentary seats may as well have been about Kurdistan and Kurdish dreams. Iraq, or the idea of Iraq, seemed as distant as the moon.

"I will vote for 730," Fakhri Muhammad, 32, said as he stood in line outside the village's primary school, referring to the ballot number of the main Kurdish coalition. "The list is Kurdish, and it represents the Kurdish people."

So went the refrain throughout much of the north, with Kurdish voters shying away from Arab candidates and siding only with Kurdish groups, particularly the Kurdistan Alliance, the coalition made up of the two main Kurdish parties. It was a stark illustration of how much the vote across Iraq had split along ethnic and sectarian lines. For many Kurds, a vote for the Kurdistan Alliance was first and foremost a bid to secure autonomy for the mountainous Kurdish homeland in the north, and only secondarily a vote for the general welfare of Iraq.

Political fervor was especially rampant here in dry, windswept Tamim Province, whose capital is Kirkuk, 15 miles south of Altun Kopri. Under Saddam Hussein's rule, the government deported Kurds and Turkmens and moved in Arabs in order to better control the oil fields.

Kurdish leaders have made no secret of their desire to incorporate Kirkuk and other parts of the province into Kurdistan, rather than allowing the central government to administrate it. Having strong representation in the new Parliament can help achieve that, went the thinking of Kurdish voters.

"This entire area is Kurdistan; Kirkuk should go to Kurdistan," said Hussein Sadr, 74, as he left a high school in Kirkuk, his index finger stained purple -- a sign that he had voted -- his eyes peering from behind thick glasses at the crowds of Kurds all around. "Kirkuk now and the people here are part of Kurdistan."

In the weeks leading up to the elections, this province had come under more scrutiny than any other because the Iraqi electoral commission had uncovered possible voter fraud. At the end of August, in the final two days of voter registration, 81,000 new names appeared on the province's registration lists, an increase far above the national average. Electoral officials announced this week that many of the applications looked suspicious. They decided that any of the 81,000 showing up would have to present extra documentation to prove his or her identity.

In the central part of the country, the voters included Sunnis who largely boycotted previous elections only to find themselves unrepresented in the new Iraqi political system.

In the often violent city of Ramadi, for example, the heavy turnout was a drastic change. Only about 2,000 people cast votes in the October referendum, and most of those were Iraqi army soldiers and poll workers from out of town. Several polling stations reported before noon yesterday that they had nearly exhausted their allotment of ballots, numbering in the thousands, a development that overjoyed Iraqi electoral officials and American military officers, who scrambled to redistribute ballots around town.

Electoral officials in Jazeera, a neighborhood in the northern outskirts of greater Ramadi, requested American military help to control crowds that had gathered at polling stations there, according to Maj. Dan Wagner, a Marine civil affairs officer. Several voters interviewed at El Imam al-Adel Elementary School, in a densely populated neighborhood near the Euphrates River, said they came to the polls in an effort to redress the lack of political representation that resulted from the Sunni Arab boycott of elections in January.

In the city of Fallujah, Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, along with American soldiers, guarded the polling centers. American helicopters and fighter planes were in the sky. Ambulances were deployed in case of an emergency. The Iraqi police used loudspeakers to urge people to go to polling centers.

"There is a big difference between this election and the previous one regarding the turnout," said Nafea Abdulla Saleh, head of the polling center at the Abu Jafar al-Mansur secondary school, where he is also the headmaster. "Lots of people this time walked to the polling centers. The only problem we have faced was that we don't enough voter registration records to check voters' names against."

The polling centers appeared busy. At one, an Iraqi policeman asked the people to wait until voters inside finished. At another, located at Al-Faiha elementary school, the 3,600 assigned ballots were all used up.

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