SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq – Soldiers and the sick cast early votes Thursday ahead of weekend elections that will determine the leadership of Iraq's Kurdish region, which is locked in an increasingly bitter dispute with the central government over oil-rich land.
A coalition of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, two parties that have dominated the self-ruled region for decades, faces a challenge from new opposition alliances that seek to capitalize on complaints about authoritarian conduct and alleged corruption.
Also Iraqi lawmakers agreed Thursday to move the national parliamentary election up from Jan. 30 to Jan. 16 to avoid conflicting with the Shiite religious observance of Ashoura, the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, said Deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiyah.
The election will determine the 275-member parliament, which will choose a prime minister and Cabinet.
In the Kurdish north, about 2.5 million eligible voters in the region's three northern provinces — Irbil, Dahuk and Sulaimaniyah — will on Saturday elect their 111-seat parliament and next president. Prison inmates, sick people in hospitals and members of the Kurdish security forces known as "peshmerga" were among those allowed to vote early.
"I have the right to vote, to feel no different from anyone outside the prison," said Nisreen Muhammad, an inmate who voted in a Sulaimaniyah prison. "We all have the same right."
Some Kurds voted in polling stations in cities outside their region. At a voting center in Baghdad, one Kurdish military official joyfully waved a finger stained with the purple ink used to mark ballot papers.
The Kurds had hoped to simultaneously hold on Saturday a referendum on a proposed constitution, but national authorities scuttled that plan. The draft constitution lays claim to disputed areas outside the three Kurdish provinces, and Iraqi Arabs view it as an effort to expand Kurdish authority.
Tension between Kurds and Arabs, particularly around the oil-rich northern region of Kirkuk, is considered a major threat to Iraqi stability despite big security gains after years of war.
In Washington on Wednesday, President Barack Obama pressed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be more flexible about sharing power and allowing provincial governments a greater role in decision-making. Al-Maliki, who has been accused of trying to gain political capital by playing up sectarian divisions, said his Shiite-led government would work hard to unite Iraq.
Iraq's parliament has not yet produced a law outlining how Iraq's oil wealth should be divided among the country's religious and ethnic groups, and Kurds seek to sign oil deals with foreign companies without approval from Baghdad.
Much of the campaign rhetoric in the Kurdish region has highlighted Kurdish nationalism, a theme with strong emotional appeal. Still, Kurdish leaders say they are committed to working within a unified Iraq, and recognize that any push for independence could alienate neighboring Iran, Syria and Turkey, which worry about their own Kurdish minorities.
Campaigning ended on Wednesday with a vehicle procession by thousands of supporters of regional President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who is favored to win another term, and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
However, Nosherwan Mustafa, a former top official in Talabani's party, has emerged as a popular reformist candidate with a group called "Change." Thousands of his supporters held a rally near his headquarters on the last day of campaigning.
The election features a proportional representation system in which voters select a party's list of candidates for parliament rather than individuals. Eleven seats are allotted to minorities, including five Turkmen, five Christians and one Armenian.
The Kurds separated from the rest of Iraq after rising up against Saddam in 1991, aided by a U.S.-British no-fly zone that helped keep the dictator's armed forces at bay.