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Iraqi Kurds Get Out The Vote

As Election Day draws near in Iraq, violence has increased in parts of the country. But in the northern region known as Kurdistan, the streets are relatively peaceful and the political parties are focusing their efforts on getting out the vote.

Almost all of the programming being broadcast over the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's radio station is about the upcoming election in Iraq.

Reading from a newsprint, one woman says, "Yesterday, President Talibani met with party members, women's organizations, and youth organizations to stress the importance of the election to the Kurdish People."

In the Kurdish city of Sulymania in northern Iraq, posters urging citizens to vote line the street. The slogans read 'Our Vote Is Our Destiny' and 'Our Vote Is Our Future Happiness'.

Sulymania Governor Dana Ahmed Majid says people understand the message. "The people of Kurdistan are well prepared for the election and are thirsty to participate. I believe more than 85 percent of the people will vote."

With the Sunnis, who boycotted last year's election, now participating, the balance of power in Iraq is almost certain to change. Even with high voter turnout the Kurds are expecting to lose a number of seats they currently hold.

To maximize their influence, business leader and former Kurdish Parliament member Salam Khan says most of the Kurdish parties have put aside their differences to form one Kurdish coalition list of candidates. The coalition includes the two most important Kurdish parties: the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and the KDP, the Kurdistan Democratic Party,

"We think that without competition it will be better in this case for Baghdad. Otherwise our vote will be split between the two parties," says Khan. "To be together is better for the Kurdish people."

At the University of Salahaddin in the city of Erbil, the message of unity to preserve the current federalist status quo resonates with some students, such as Payman Kazem. "The election is very important to Kurds because it will determine the future of Kurdistan."

Others, such as Abdullah Bakhtyar, say there's been no real progress, and they are turned off by politics as usual. "It's the media's fault. They don't illustrate exactly what it all means."

A clearer -- and for many here a more desirable -- option would be to make Kurdistan an independent state. But Aziz Rauf, political analyst for the PUK party newspaper the Observer, says for now being part of a democratic Iraq provides protection from a hostile world. "I believe independence for the Kurdish people, but as Talibani said, as all the parties in Kurdistan said, federalism in Kurdistan is the great solution."

After the election the top issue on the Kurds' agenda will be to keep the oil rich city of Kirkuk under Kurdish control. If they fail to achieve that, the Kurds' commitment to being part of a greater democratic Iraq could be put to the test.