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A siesta, then voting counting continues in Iraq Election 2010

KIRKUK — The vote count is underway in Iraq to tally the winners of yesterday’s parliamentary elections. Preliminary results won’t be known at least for a few days, and the final tally may not be released for weeks.

Although an estimated 65 percent of Iraqis participated in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Iraq, the disputed province of Kirkuk appears to have topped that number, with 70 percent of voters showing up at the polls.

A woman showed her stained finger after voting in Kirkuk, Mar. 7.  (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

U.S. and international election observers here said the vote went smoothly and was well organized. They said that so far there have been “no game-changing allegations of fraud.”

Kirkuk province’s central polling center was still closed late this morning. All the ballot boxes in the province had been brought there, but awaited the final tally. Polling Center Deputy Director Firaz Jamal told GlobalPost most of the top election officials were at home.

“They completed work at 8am in the morning, so they need to get some rest, and they will be back here in an hour, two hours, I don’t know,” he said around noon.

The central ballot counting office in Kirkuk on the morning of Mar. 8.  The Director was  at home resting after having counted ballots until 8am.  Ballot counting was expected to continue in the afternoon. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

After their siesta, election officials were expected to work around the clock to finalize Kirkuk’s results. The Iraqi Electoral Commission has said they expect to announce preliminary nationwide results on Wednesday. U.S. officials are expecting the results to significantly alter Kirkuk’s political landscape.

“The results of this election will affect the balance of power in this province tremendously,” Gabriel Escobar, the head of the U.S. Embassy’s Kirkuk Provincial Reconstruction Team, told U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Christopher R. Hill yesterday during a short visit to Kirkuk airfield.

The vote here pitted the province’s three main ethnic groups, the Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, against one another in what was billed as one of the most intense campaigns of the country. A new party, the Goran, or “Change” party, has now split Kurdish voters into three groups from what were the original two biggest Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).

The Kurdish flag adorns one polling station in Kirkuk. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

Kirkuk is traditionally the domain of the PUK, and the party has not taken lightly to how quickly the Change party’s message of reform has gained traction with Kurds. The Change party was founded by former members of the PUK, and now accuse their former party of kicking off the campaign season in February by tearing down Change posters, and intimidating Change supporters to the point of firing automatic rifles over their houses.

“The PUK were out to win at all costs,” Escobar told Ambassador Hill. “They really believed that we weren’t paying attention to some of the anti-democratic activity they were engaged in,”

PUK party officials deny the allegations, and say they were victims of similar tactics by other parties. The PUK is worried enough about a possible loss in one of its two biggest cities that US officials say Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq and longtime PUK leader, has been in Kirkuk in the run up to the election, and was planning to cast his ballot here.

Some supporters fear any divisions between Kurdish ranks will result in a dissolution of the Kurd’s unified front in Baghdad, which has allowed them to keep their autonomous region in northern Iraq.

“The Kurds need to speak with one voice, from one position,” Latif Khoder Khooder, a 70-year-old PUK supporter, said as he exited the polls today. “More parties will weaken the Kurds.”

A 55-year-old woman in a black chador named Shazad Ibrahim said she voted for the Change party because the PUK had detained her son, Salar Nahad, in 2003. She said he was in the area where an attempted assassination attempt against Jalal Talabani had taken place, killing two of his body guards.

“I haven’t seen my son in seven years,” she said, tears streaming down her face at the polling station. “He was only 18. I just want to know if he’s dead or alive.”

Ibrahim’s account was not able to be verified.

There are 13 seats up for grabs in Kirkuk, and the Kurds will likely win six or seven, say U.S. officials. The results could have more than just an effect on the parliament. Currently, the PUK dominates the provincial council. But if the Change Party wins more seats, it is expected to seriously weaken the PUK’s claims that it should dominate politics in the province.

Iraqi voters check for their names on the register at a polling station in Kirkuk on  Mar. 7. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

For that reason, party observers from all the Kurdish parties were at Sunday’s polling stations. There were no reported problems at six out of eight polling stations a U.S. Embassy Observer team visited on election day. But there were several instances of voters going to their local station and not finding their names. Some voters also had their names marked off as having voted when a relative with the same name voted earlier in the day.

Other problems also occurred in areas with high rates of illiteracy. One illiterate woman complained the Iraqi election official marked her ballot for her. The manager of the polling station later told her that this was the standard procedure. At another polling station, where nearly 50 percent of voters were illiterate, election workers did away with the possibility of fraud by showing the ballot of illiterate voters to all the observers; however, this process also compromised the voter’s privacy.

Despite the problems, officials told the U.S. Embassy Observers that the problems didn’t appear politically motivated, or malicious.

“All the problems are technical details,” said Nawzart Kareem Mohammad, 41, at the Zakros Primary School. Up to 30 percent of the voters here, mostly internally displaced persons didn’t find their names on the ballot.

Mohammad’s story is that of the area he inhabits spells out the next challenge for Kirkuk. New buildings are springing up in new neighborhoods. They are from Kurds who were kicked out of Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein in the '80s and '90s as he moved Arabs into Kirkuk, in an effort to “Arabize” the oil rich city.

Men wait outside a polling station on March 7, 2010 in Kirkuk before election time begins  at 7am. (Ben Gilbert/GlobalPost)

Now, the Arabs remain, and want to be under Baghdad’s rule. The Kurds, like Mohammad, have moved back, and say Kirkuk belongs to Kurdistan. Mohammad’s neighborhood in Kirkuk is called Kurdistan; its previous name was Fayloq, or “Division” in Arabic because it was near a military base — and was once primarily occupied by Sunni Arabs. The Zakros Primary School polling station did not fly the Iraqi flag, it flew the Kurdistan Regional Government flag.

A referendum on the status of Kirkuk is included in the Iraqi constitution, but it has been delayed repeatedly. The first step is to take a census, and to settle property disputes that stem from the dislocation of the Kurds.

But because this the first time that the Sunni Arabs have taken part in the vote, U.S. Embassy officials here say they expect their participation, and the emergence of the Change party, will most certainly result in a whole new political dynamic for Kirkuk. Whether that new reality will make settling the issue of Kirkuk harder or easier is yet to be seen.