BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of security forces in Iraq's self-ruled northern Kurdish region flocked on Thursday to polling centers to vote, two days ahead of the area's fourth election for local parliament since 1992.
Saturday's balloting in the region also known as Iraqi Kurdistan is likely to underline the Kurdish minority's insistence on self-rule and independence from the central, Arab-led government in Baghdad.
Kurds have enjoyed autonomy since 1991, when a U.S.-British no-fly zone helped protect them from Saddam Hussein's forces until his fall in 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Since then, the region has been largely peaceful compared to the rest of Iraq.
There are nearly three million eligible Iraqi Kurdish voters, said Muqdad al-Shuraifi from the Independent High Electoral Commission. More than 150,000 members of the Kurdish security forces can take part in Thursday's special voting, allowing them to secure polling stations on Saturday.
Nearly 1,130 candidates are vying for a spot in the 111-seat parliament in the semi-autonomous region.
"So far, the process is going on smoothly and we have not registered any irregularities," al-Shuraifi told The Associated Press.
The vote is not expected to upend the domination of the region's two main parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by regional President Masoud Barzani.
But the ambiguity over the health condition of Talabani, who suffered a stroke last December, could help a stubborn opposition group make a strong showing in Sulaimaniyah province, one of three provinces that make up the Kurdish region.
Since December, the 79-year old Talabani has been in Germany for treatment, but few details have been released about his health and his family denies requests by political leaders to visit him, fueling speculation about the seriousness of his condition and his ability to continue with his political life.
Some Iraqi officials and Baghdad-based diplomats have said Talabani slipped into a coma shortly after the stroke happened, or was otherwise gravely incapacitated.
The opposition group called Goran, or Change, is led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former PUK senior member who focused his campaign on criticizing alleged corruption, nepotism, media intimidation and heavy-handed behavior by private security groups in the region.
In its debut in 2009 elections, Change gained about 23 percent of parliament seats while the coalition of KDP and PUK took a little over 57 percent.
Whatever political framework the election results bring and despite their internal differences, Kurds will stay united in their dispute with Baghdad over lands claimed by both sides, controlling natural resources and power sharing.
Elsewhere in Iraq, police on Thursday found 10 bodies of handcuffed and blindfolded men, believed to have been 20 to 30 years old, with gunshots to the head and chest, a police officer said.
The bodies were discovered in an abandoned medicine factory near Baghdad's eastern Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, he said.
And in Baghdad's western suburb of Abu Ghraib, a bomb went off at a market, killing three shoppers and wounding nine, another police officer said. Two medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Iraq has been going through a bitter cycle violence since April, reminiscent to the one that brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007. More than 4,000 people have been killed in Iraq since April, including 804 just in August, according to U.N. figures.
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