by Aaron Glantz
(IPS) ARBIL -- It is 8:30 in the morning and the roads of Arbil appear for a moment to be eerily silent. Most cars have been banned from the streets of this Kurdish city of 800,000. Roadblocks are up all over town.
But the city is hardly abandoned. The local Peshmerga guerillas are out in force. Everywhere I look, large groups of men and women in traditional dress are walking towards their polling stations.
"I wouldn't be surprized if Kurds make up 50 percent of the voters," my friend James Longley, an independent film-maker, says from the front seat of the car.
We are speeding, press badges close to our chest, to a polling station in a small village 30 minutes drive southwest of town. James has been filming a family here for months and he wants to catch them voting.
Kurds are only about 20 percent of Iraq's population of 26 million, but Kurd areas are so much safer than the rest of the country that I think James must be right.
Driving out through the wheat fields in the southern part of the Kurdish autonomous area, we pass dozens of old Toyota pick-ups, their beds full of Kurds headed to the polls. We also pass buses full of voters, over-sized Kurdish flags on their outside paid for by the main Kurdish political parties.
When we pull into Pir Dawud village around 9AM, we see a polling station besieged by voters. Thousands of Kurds of all ages mill around, looking for a chance to queue up. Some push forward to the front. The local Peshmerga push them back, firing bullets into the air.
Local Kurdish politicians sent voters from the countryside to this polling station the night before for security reasons, an election official said. She told me they had been expecting 1,500 voters. But about 9,000 showed up.
Everyone here is excited about voting. "We were destroyed by Arabs, and they took our honor," an old man tells me as he patiently waits his turn. He gives his name as Rashid Pirbal.
"Now we feel like we are living and we are human," says the 70-year-old farmer. "We are no longer under the control of Arab people. We are Kurds and we must vote for the Kurdish people."
Like everyone else around him, he is primarily concerned with the success of a unified slate of major Kurdish political parties. The slate stands for Kurdish autonomy in the North, and Kurdish domination of the oil-rich city Kirkuk, which currently lies outside of the domain of the Kurdistan regional government.
But despite the enthusiasm, many Kurds are concerned about the electoral process.
"I wish there were international monitors here in this election," said 55-year-old Shirzad Mohammed Mahmoud, a stocky man with a thick white mustache, the head of a family with nine registered voters. "It would have been better and more legal."
When I said there were no international election monitors in Iraq because of the dangerous security situation, he expressed surprise. "Maybe the center and south of Iraq are not so stable, but here we are quite safe."
Money is playing its part in the Kurdish election, local people say. Over the last week many Kurds told me they had been given money to vote either by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two have a common slate for elections to the 275-member national assembly, but are contesting against one another in simultaneous elections for the regional council.
The amount offered was usually around 60,000 Iraqi dinars (40 dollars), they said. Retired people queued up at the offices of both parties to claim special pension bonuses in the days before the election.
"We are living in the Middle East," Kemal Hamid Hassen, a KDP Peshmerga guarding the polling station said. "We have sacrificed so much and we have been bleeding for a long time and losing people before the war or after the war. So I can't say completely that vote buying doesn't happen. Maybe whenever a party thinks it's weak, it begins to pay for votes. This is related to the way people here think."
But Kurds looked happy at the chance to vote in an election that could determine the fate of the Kurdish people. "We are voting as Kurds to have seats in the national council in Baghdad as the Iraqi government," Mahmoud said. "This is so important for us to have. Maybe my vote will give us one more seat on the council in Baghdad."
January 31, 2005 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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