Kurds fight out internal rivalries in Iraq vote

(Reuters) – Celebratory gunfire broke out in Iraq’s Kurdish north as the octogenarian was shown on television raising an ink-stained finger after casting his vote thousands of miles away in Germany.

The man was Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his silent appearance at an early ballot for the election due at home on Wednesday was the first footage of him since he suffered a stroke late in 2012 and was flown abroad for medical treatment.

In Sulaimaniyah, capital of the province of the same name where his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is headquartered, cars blared their horns and people, some wearing T-shirts printed with Talabani’s face, danced on the streets.

Cause for festivities may be short-lived. Wednesday’s election marks a new round in an internal power struggle that risks turning violent and skewing the balance of power in Kurdistan between influential neighbors Iran and Turkey.

The parliamentary vote is being contested as bitterly within each of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian constituencies as between them — if not more so.

Among the Kurds, long at odds with Baghdad and in charge of their own quasi-state in the north of the country, rivalries have prevented the formation of a government more than seven months after elections in the oil-rich enclave.

This election, amounts, for them, to a referendum on Talabani’s PUK, left rudderless and internally riven without the ailing statesman, known affectionately as “dear uncle”.

The PUK’s fading star has upset the region’s time-worn political order, raising concerns about stability, particularly in Sulaimaniyah province, which Talabani’s party has controlled since Kurdistan gained autonomy more than three decades ago…