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Election Day in Erbil

Defense Tech superstar correspondent David Axe made it to Iraqi Kurdistan, just in time for the elections. Here's the first of his reports for the site. (The pics are his, too, sent by satphone.)kurdish_soldier_erbil.JPGThere's a party in northern Iraq, and everyone's invited.While the insurgency in north-central Iraq enters its third year, the Marines root out foreign fighters in the western desert and southern Iraq becomes increasingly aligned to Islamist Iran, northern Iraq is peaceful, secure and relatively prosperous, thanks to an uneasy alliance of two rival Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.The Iraqi Kurds had been fighting for independence since Iraq's inception in the wake of WWI. In the wake of Desert Storm, with Saddam Hussein's army in ruins, the Kurds went on a massive offensive and carved out an autonomous province with two capitals: Erbil the west under the KDP and Sulaymaniyah in the east under the PUK. From 1994 to 1997 the two parties fought each other until M. Albright intervened. When U.S.-led forces invaded in 2003 the Kurds increased their hold and cemented their truce, fielding a single slate of candidates in both the Jan. elections for an interim assembly and today's election for the first permanent assembly. During these years of peace between the parties, the Kurds have built a regional elected assembly, highways, industry, an army, police, a judiciary and airports. They've welcomed back former expatriates, including sizeable minorities of Jews and Christians. Kurdistan has grown and prospered and diversified.kurdish_flag_erbil.JPGBut cracks are showing. More Kurds and demanding that their control extend south to oil-rich Kirkuk, which would alienate the Arabs that form 60 percent of the central government. Others want formal independence, which would piss off pretty much everybody, especially Turkey which has its own Kurd problem. And while the KDP and PUK have stayed tight, they have a new Kurdish rival now, the radical Islamic League of Kurdistan. While most Kurds are Muslims, few are radical, and the ILK threatens to upset the moderate progressive atmosphere. Recent weeks have seen riots at ILK headquarters. Everyone is blaming everyone else.Today's elections were typical of the votes in Jan. (interim assembly) and October (referendum). With my interpreter and driver we toured three polling places, chatted with workers and voters and cops and found everything in order. It appears the KDP-PUK coalition will sweep. Tonight, with polls closed, Kurds are dancing and singing in the streets. So the peace holds ... for now.I'll be in Erbil for two weeks, exploring local politics and getting a feel for how Kurds are balancing their growing aspirations against the concerns of their neighbors and countrymen. Stay tuned.-- David AxeUPDATE 11:39 EST: Word has it there's been voter fraud in Kurdistan. Big deal.It's Friday evening in Erbil. Election Day euphoria is fading. Walking the market with my C-SPAN co-cameraman David Burch, we find an internet caf with blinking fluorescent lights and a chugging generator powering some ancient hardware. Everyone's smoking cigarettes at their stations."How much?" I ask in bad Kurdish. The proprieter shrugs. We settle on a dollar per hour.I log on and see that NPR is reporting voter fraud here in cheery Kurdistan.I'm not surprised. Earlier David and I hailed a cab ("How much?" I asked in back Kurdish. The driver shrugged.) and dropped in on our Norwegian buddy Per Thorsdalem at the high-security Sheraton hotel -- with working toilets!Per is a businessman. He's here as an advance party for some Norwegian firm. He figured, hey, I'm in Erbil. Why not be an international elections observer?He told me this morning that he witnessed two types of fraud: family voting, where fathers dictate their childrens' votes; and multiple voting. The former is an inevitable artifact of a patriarchal society. The latter is no surprise in the Middle East, and easy to perpetrate, what with the red-dye-and-finger method of preventing it.But neither Per nor I is as scandalized as NPR apparently is. The elections here went off without a hitch. No bombs. No violence at all. Quiet. As orderly as things get in Iraq. And, man, were the Kurds ever thrilled to vote. Per told me that in one rural village outside Erbil, info on registration procedures never got out, and hundreds of villagers were turned away from the poll. They were devastated. Democracy is life to these people -- or, as one Kurdish Christian named Jacob told me: "Democracy is the best religion for mankind." He meant that, and most Kurds agree with him.There will always be fraud and corruption in Iraq. (In one desperate moment, a cabbie here charged me 1000 times the normal rate for a short trip!) Nevertheless, these elections have been a resounding success.-- David Axe

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