SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq – Iraqis headed to the polls Saturday in the country's self-ruled Kurdish north, a region mired in a bitter dispute with Baghdad over oil and land that threatens Iraq's stability.
The election for the region's president and 111-seat parliament will test a political establishment that has kept the semiautonomous region relatively safe but faces allegations of corruption.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was one of the first to cast his ballot and called on all his fellow Kurds to vote.
"It is an important and crucial period and a step forward for a bigger democracy in the region and Iraq," he told reporters.
As security has improved in Iraq, U.S. military commanders have viewed tension between Kurds and Arabs, particularly around oil-rich Kirkuk, as one of the greatest threats to Iraq's stability. President Barack Obama has pressured Iraq's central government to be more flexible about sharing power and allowing provincial governments a greater role in decision-making.
But the government is wary about ceding too much authority to the Kurds for fear that they will attempt to secede at some point and take the region's wealth of oil resources with them.
Security measures have been tightened in the region for Saturday's election, and the 2.5 million eligible voters are only allowed to walk or take government authorized buses to polling centers.
The two dominant political coalitions, Taliban's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and regional President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, face a challenge from new opposition alliances seeking to capitalize on alleged misconduct and corruption.
The Kurds had hoped to hold a referendum during the local elections on a proposed constitution, which lays claim to disputed areas outside the three Kurdish provinces, including Kirkuk. But national authorities scuttled that plan because Iraq's Arabs view it as an effort to expand Kurdish authority.
The Kurds have also clashed with the central government over a law outlining how Iraq's oil wealth should be divided among the country's religious and ethnic groups. Iraqi officials say the roughly two dozen deals the Kurds have signed with international oil companies are illegal since they were not approved in Baghdad.
The Kurds separated from the rest of Iraq after rising up against Saddam Hussein in 1991, aided by a U.S.-British no-fly zone that helped keep the former dictator's armed forces at bay.