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Iraq's Kurds go the polls amid carnival atmosphere

By Simon Hooper, CNN
  • Northern provinces of Erbil, Suleimaniyah and and Dohuk mostly spared violence
  • Region contested by Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP)
  • Two parties now facing a new challenge to their dominance from Goran
  • Goran formed by former deputy of PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani

Suleimaniyah, Iraq (CNN) -- Ahmed Hassan Rasul spent 10 years in the mountains of northern Iraq as a peshmerga guerilla, fighting for independence for Iraq's Kurds against the forces of Saddam Hussein.

A soldier in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Rasul was shot in the leg and later burnt by chemical weapons in 1987 during the former Iraqi dictator's "Anfal" ethnic cleansing campaign against the country's large Kurdish minority.

But now Rasul is a soldier in another battle, this time at the ballot box and against a former comrade in arms, the PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Rasul says he will vote for the Goran (Change) movement in Sunday's Iraqi parliamentary elections rather than for the Kurdistan List, an alliance between the PUK and the region's other dominant political force, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led by current Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

Like the PUK, the KDP is a former guerilla movement celebrated by many Iraqi Kurds for its role in the decades-long struggle against oppression by Baghdad.

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But Rasul and other critics of the ruling parties say the power-sharing deal hasn't benefited ordinary Iraqi Kurds. They say the regional government is failing to provide basic services such as electricity and claim that corruption and nepotism are rife.

"If I went back over to their side they would give me a wage, a car and probably a house as well," Rasul told CNN. "But I fought for my country and for my people and in the end only two parties benefited."

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While electioneering elsewhere in Iraq has been overshadowed by security concerns and a spate of deadly bombings, a very different type of campaign has been going on in Iraq's Kurdish region.

The three northern provinces of Erbil, Suleimaniyah and and Dohuk, which call themselves the "other Iraq," have mostly been spared the carnage and civil unrest that followed the U.S.-invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraqi Kurds trace their own democratic roots back further still to the 1992 elections organized following the creation of a United Nations-backed northern safe haven in the aftermath of the first Gulf War which established the region's de facto independence from Baghdad.

Since then, control of the region has been carved up between the KDP and the PUK -- though the rival factions fought a civil war in the 1990s. But the two parties are now facing a new challenge to their dominance. Goran, formed by Talabani's one-time deputy in the PUK, Nawshirwan Mustafa, won almost 25 percent of votes in last year's elections for the Kurdish region's parliament.

One of Goran's leading candidates, Hama Tofiq Rahim, told CNN the party expected to do even better in Sunday's ballot on the back of a campaign promising transparency in government and an end to corruption. Rahim said the party hoped to win around 20 seats in the Iraqi parliament.

But the Goran leadership's former ties to the PUK has left some pondering whether the party can genuinely deliver on its promise of change.

"There is a sense that we are capable of doing better and deserve better.
--Journalist Azad Amin
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  • Al Qaeda in Iraq
  • Terrorism

Critics have also questioned Goran's decision to run independently of the PUK-KDP-dominated Kurdistan List and say that Kurdish unity in Baghdad shouldn't be jeopardized for the sake of pursuing local political rivalries, especially with many predicting that the Kurdish bloc will once again be a crucial player in post-election wrangling to form a coalition government.

And with Iraq's future still clouded by simmering tensions along the country's Kurdish-Arab faultline, Azad Amin, the editor of the Kurdish Globe newspaper, said it was understandable that many Kurdish people still looked for leadership to those who had fought on their behalf in the past.

"Even today the future of Kurdistan and Iraq is not clear and there is huge anxiety that things could explode at any time," Amin told CNN. "So many people think that the leaders who fought for their liberation are the same people who can be trusted to protect them from any potential dangers in the future."

Free from the spectre of random bombings, election campaigning in Iraq's Kurdish region has been a colorful and chaotic carnival with processions of cars filled with flag-waving supporters vying for attention in towns and cities amid a cacophonous medley of Kurdish pop music.

Streets and neighborhoods are competitively decorated in the yellow, green and blue bunting of the main parties while the rivalries continue onto the airwaves on satellite TV channels controlled by each of the parties.

But the campaign has also had an ugly side, especially in the eastern city of Suleimaniyah, once Talabani's PUK powerbase but now the focus of Goran's political ambitions and the scene in recent days of violent clashes between rival political factions.

Goran officials claim its supporters have been attacked and intimidated by militia and security forces allied to the other parties, while Rasul showed CNN video footage recorded on his cellphone of an alleged shooting incident last month in which he said three Goran supporters were wounded.

During a visit to Goran party's headquarters, CNN also saw two campaign workers with facial injuries which the victims said they had suffered in politically motivated attacks.

But Jamal Talabani, a relation of President Talabani and a senior PUK official in Suleimaniyah, denied that party supporters had provoked clashes and said that security forces had returned fire only after gunmen fired shots at the party headquarters.

He said clashes between rival factions were inevitable with thousands taking to the streets each night in the run-up to Sunday's vote and security forces had been even-handed in dealing with unrest.

The PUK hoped that Iraq could develop into a "24-carat democracy" but safety remained the main issue for voters even in the Kurdish region, Jamal Talabani told CNN.

At least 11 people have been injured in recent street-fighting in the town, according to the Institute of War and Peace Reporting, while journalists have also complained of intimidation and violence, the international press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders said.

Yet despite the unrest, Azad Amin said the choice of a genuine alternative to a decades-old duopoly in Sunday's election marked a leap forward in the Kurdish region's democratic development by opening up government to scrutiny and making political leaders more accountable.

"People are pushing open the door," he said. "There is a sense that we are capable of doing better and deserve better. This is how democracy develops -- not through fear, but through ideas."