Iraqi Kurds on board for elections but still wary
Campaigning in the Kurdish-controlled zone of Iraq's north got off to a slow start after weeks of uncertainty over their participation in Sunday's election.
In the streets of Arbil, the bustling regional capital of the territory declared a semi-autonomous Kurdish enclave by western allies after the 1991 Gulf War, election posters of Kurd political candidates have sprouted up almost overnight.
Young men waving the red, white, green and gold Kurdish flag or banners of Kurdish political parties race around the city in pick-up trucks mounted with huge speakers blaring out political slogans and traditional Kurdish music.
As evening falls, groups of energetic activists converge in the city centre, singing, dancing and lighting fireworks to celebrate the approach of a new landmark in Iraq's turbulent history.
"The time of Saddam Hussein is finished - now is the moment for freedom and democracy," said 49-year-old civil servant Ahmed Denouf, inspecting a pamphlet thrust into his hands by campaigners from an independent Kurdish party.
The scenes are a far cry from the situation just over two weeks ago when Kurdish leaders were on the point of withdrawing candidates in a dispute with the central government over electoral conditions in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
But with the credibility of the elections already tarnished by an unstable security situation making the process impossible in some areas of the country, Baghdad was forced to make concessions to Kurdish demands in an effort to bring the minority ethnic community on board.
Electoral officials - worried that the already-tarnished credibility of the elections would be severely damaged by a Kurdish boycott - agreed to overturn a decision that Kurdish refugees camped around Kirkuk were ineligible to vote in the city's provincial elections.
Kurdish leaders consequently endorsed the election, initiating a late flurry of campaigning in the Kurdish zone. But the legacy of Kurdish persecution by former regime has created suspicion for a process likely to install another Arab-dominated government in Baghdad.
"There is a big gulf between Arabs and Kurds which will never disappear," said retired farmer Khader Dizayee, 68, showing little enthusiasm for Sunday's historic vote.
"This election is only useful as far as it helps Kurds."
In contrast to many other areas of Iraq where insurgents are waging a bloody battle to subvert the elections, the Kurdish zone has stayed remarkably free of car bombs and shootings despite its proximity to violent hotbeds like the troubled city of Mosul.
Since 1991, Kurdish authorities have been handling their own security affairs using the Kurdish 'peshmerga' militia which fought a decades-long guerrilla war with the central Iraqi government.
While US-led authorities - keen to remove all vestiges of Saddam's influence after toppling his regime - zealously dismantled the existing Iraqi national army and police force, Kurdish authorities quietly subsumed the peshmerga into the region's security forces.
Former peshmerga fighters wearing the uniform of the Iraq National Guard now patrol an informal border between the Kurdish zone and the rest of Iraq. Highly disciplined and better motivated than their Arab counterparts, these forces perform stringent checks on all incoming traffic.
The result is that the Kurdish region is one of the few places in Iraq where security conditions are favourable for holding elections and Kurdish politicians are hoping this is reflected at the polls.
"A strong turnout is important here, we hope to win between 70 and 80 seats in Baghdad," said Adnan Mufti, a senior member of the Kurdish parliament in Arbil and representative of the coalition of Kurdish parties running in the national elections.
Although security precautions will be similar to other parts of Iraq on election day - with vehicle movement restrictions being imposed to prevent car bombings - there is little indication that Kurds will be intimidated away from the ballot boxes by security fears.
"Here we are not scared of going to vote - it's obvious that our security situation is much better," said 33-year-old electrical engineer Bakhtiar Hanna.
Security issues aside, however, Kurdish interest in the national Iraqi elections seems confined to winning more independence from the central government for which they are voting.
More than 13 years of semi-autonomous rule has seen the Kurdish zone flourish economically. Average salaries here are often three times higher than the rest of Iraq. Factories are being built while the rest of Iraq is mired in violence and land and property prices are soaring.
Kurds want to safeguard the gains they have made, and many feel little affinity with Baghdad, particularly the younger generation. A recent poll of students at the local university said 85 per cent wanted the Kurdish zone to be declare independence from Iraq.
"As long as Kurdish interests go hand-in-hand with the Iraqi political process we will support it," said archaeology student and political activist Khoven Mardani, 27.
"But when that finishes, we will stop."
Kurdish leaders have received criticism in some quarters for accepting to be part of a unified Iraq, although there is general acknowledgement that the common dream of creating an independent Kurdish state is best left aside for the moment.
Such a move would be unacceptable to Iraqi Arabs, not to mention the Kurds' neighbours: Iran, Syria and Turkey, who all have sizeable Kurdish communities of their own.
Recognising this reality, most Kurds are happy to be a federally-autonomous part of Iraq (as agreed under the interim constitution) as long as certain demands are met.
"For now, Kurds accept federalism as a means towards self-determination," said Dr Noory Talabani, a former law professor running as an independent candidate in the Kurdish regional elections.
"It's the right of our people".
The issue of who should control oil-rich Kirkuk is a potential stumbling-block. Saddam deported thousands of Kurds from the city, replacing them with Arabs. Kurds want this process reversed and the city included within the borders of a Kurdish federal zone.
Decisions over the city's status have been postponed until after an official census is carried out later this year, but Kurdish mistrust of the central authorities raises the prospect that Kurds will try to establish facts on the ground.
"We want our refugees to be moved back to the city, our former areas returned and the Arabs sent back home," said Fatih Sangawy, a Kurdish journalist from a small town on the outskirts of Kirkuk.
"The Iraqi government has always oppressed us, we cannot trust or depend on them."