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Incumbents Ahead In Iraq Kurd Vote, But Challenged

A wall draped with election posters in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah.
IRBIL, Iraq (Reuters) -- Powerful Kurdish ruling parties have appeared to fend off a surprisingly strong opposition challenge in weekend elections in Iraq’s Kurdish region, which is locked in a bitter feud with Baghdad authorities over land and oil.

Unofficial reports showed Kurdish President Masud Barzani claimed 70 percent of the presidential vote in the July 25 elections in the largely autonomous northern region, says Fuad Hussein, a senior official in Barzani's office.

He said the two-party ruling alliance -- Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd -- received 60 percent of votes for the next 111-member Kurdish parliament.

Official preliminary results are expected later on July 27.

Underlying the election are larger questions about whether Kurds, who make up a fifth of Iraqis, can repair deeply strained ties with Iraqi leaders in Baghdad as Kurds assert rights to the oil-producing Kirkuk region and other disputed areas lying outside current borders of their relatively peaceful enclave.

Kurds have vowed they will not abandon their quest for control of Kirkuk, Iraq's northern oil hub that is an uneasy ethnic mix of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans. They are also pushing ahead with an aggressive strategy for exploiting their own oil and gas fields, pitting them against the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

The feud has held critical energy legislation hostage in parliament and spooked potential foreign investors. It may also pose the most serious threat to Iraq's stability just as the sectarian violence unleashed by the 2003 invasion fades.

The government of Shi'ite Arab Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is not on speaking terms with Barzani, has praised the vote as democratic. Turnout was close to 80 percent.

Fadhel Omar, a spokesman for the ruling party list, said he expected the two parties to get 63 seats, based on unofficial results not including early voting by soldiers. "We are happy the election process has concluded successfully," he said.

But even senior officials from the joint list acknowledged they were surprised by the strong showing from opposition parties that have made political reform their central message, especially around PUK stronghold Sulaimaniya.

The Goran (Change) list, headed by former PUK official Noshirwan Mustafa, is expecting 27 to 30 parliamentary seats, said Abdil Mamand, a Goran official in Arbil.

Shaho Said, another Change official, said the list came in first place in Sulaymaniyah and second across Kurdistan.

Reform and Services, another opposition grouping, said it expected to get 14 to 17 seats in parliament.

Such results could mark a turning point for politics in Iraq’s Kurdish region, where political alternatives to the two powerful parties have been scant and where critics complain of little transparency, media intimidation and security force abuses.

Mamand, like other opposition officials, said the vote was marred by irregularities, such as voting by people without proper IDs. "If the fraud wasn't happening, we think we could have had more than 35 seats," he said.

The election commission has said it is looking into several hundred complaints, but did not expect any of them to alter the outcome of the vote. It said the vote was largely problem-free.