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Iraq's Kurds vote amid rows, regional tensions

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    A man walks past a campaign poster of the Movement for Change (MC aka Goran) on September 18, 2013 in Iraq's northern city of Sulaimaniyah ahead of Kurdistan's parliamentary elections (AFP/File)

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    An Iraqi rides his bicycle on September 18, 2013 in Iraq's northern city of Sulaimaniyah past a giant campaign poster featuring Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) running as a candidate in Kurdistan's parliamentary elections (AFP/File)

Iraq's Kurds vote on Saturday for their parliament as the autonomous region grapples with disputes with the federal government while fellow Kurds fight bloody battles across the border in Syria.

The legislative election also comes amid questions over the future of the Kurdish nation, spread across historically hostile countries that have more recently either shown a willingness to discuss Kurdish demands or been in conflict, allowing Kurds to carve out their own territory.

The vote is the first of its kind to be held in Kurdistan, a three-province autonomous region in north Iraq, in more than four years.

It will see three main parties jostle for position in the Kurdish parliament, with long-term implications both domestically and farther afield.

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional president Massud Barzani is widely expected to garner the largest number of seats.

But the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is in government with the KDP, faces a challenge from the Goran faction in its own backyard as it struggles with leadership questions as its long-time chief Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president, recuperates in Germany from a stroke.

Internationally, the focus is likely to be on the region's increasingly strident moves in recent years towards full-fledged independence from Iraq's federal government.

Oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan has sought to establish a pipeline that would give it access to international markets. It has also sent crude across the border to neighbouring Turkey, and signed deals with foreign energy firms, including giants such as Exxon Mobil and Total.

It has capitalised on its reputation for greater safety and stability, as well as a faster-growing economy than the rest of Iraq, to solicit investment independent of the federal government.

All this has drawn the ire of Baghdad, and the two sides are also locked in a protracted dispute over a swathe of land which Kurdistan wants to incorporate, over the objections of the federal government.

The region has also become more involved in the 30-month-long civil war in neighbouring Syria.

Clashes last month between Kurdish forces and jihadists keen to secure a land corridor connecting them to Iraq pushed tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds across the border, seeking refuge in Iraq's Kurdish region.

Barzani has threatened to intervene in the Syria conflict to protect Kurds there, although officials have since scaled back those remarks.

In all, 2.8 million Iraqi Kurds are eligible to vote in the election for the 111-seat legislature, which drafts its own laws.

Kurdistan also operates its own security forces and visa regime and has control over a wide array of other responsibilities.

But while it claims its citizens enjoy greater freedoms than their compatriots elsewhere in Iraq, Kurdish authorities have been criticised for a litany of rights abuses.

Ahead of the polls, attacks on Goran supporters have left one person dead and several wounded.