BAGHDAD (AP) — Security forces in Iraq's Kurdish north voted Thursday in early balloting ahead of elections for the self-rule region's local parliament as political leaders across the country's religious and ethnic spectrum pledged to work toward defusing political tensions roiling the country.
Saturday's balloting in the northern Kurdish region is likely to underline the ethnic minority's insistence on greater autonomy from the central, Arab-led government in Baghdad.
Nearly three million Iraqi Kurdish voters are eligible to cast ballots in Saturday's vote, with 1,130 candidates vying for the 111 seats in the regional parliament. Security forces voted Thursday so they can keep polling stations safe on election day.
The vote is not expected to upend the domination of the region's two main parties: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani.
Ambiguity over the health condition of Talabani, who suffered a stroke in December, could help the Gorran opposition group make a strong showing in Sulaimaniyah province, one of three provinces that make up the Kurdish region.
The 79-year old Talabani is being treated in Germany. Few details have been released about his health, fueling speculation about his ability to continue with his political life.
The Gorran, or Change, party is led by Nosherwan Mustafa, a former PUK senior member who focused his campaign on criticizing alleged corruption, nepotism, media intimidation and heavy-handed behavior by private security groups in the region.
In its debut in 2009 elections, Gorran gained about 23 percent of parliament seats while the coalition of KDP and PUK took a little over 57 percent.
Whatever political framework the election results bring, the Kurds are expected to remain united in their dispute with Baghdad over lands claimed by both sides, controlling natural resources and power sharing.
In Baghdad, Shiite, Arab Sunni and Kurdish political leaders — including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi — signed an "honor pact" against the violence that has been on the rise since a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in April.
The pact did not have the backing from all key Iraqi politicians. Those loyal to the secular but Sunni-dominated Iraqiya bloc of former Shiite Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, boycotted the meeting.
The pact calls for safeguarding national unity, dialogue over political problems, firm action against terrorist activities and fair distribution of government posts among all Iraqi sects and ethnic groups.
Iraqi political groups have signed several similar agreements in the past but overcoming violence and political differences remains an elusive goal.
Iraq is weathering its deadliest bout of violence in half a decade, raising fears the country is returning to the sectarian bloodshed that pushed it to the brink of civil war in the years after Saddam's ouster.
More than 4,000 people have been killed violently in Iraq since April.
Also Thursday, police found 10 bodies of handcuffed and blindfolded men with gunshots to the head and chest in an abandoned medicine factory near Baghdad's eastern Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, a police officer said.
In Baghdad's western suburb of Abu Ghraib, a bomb went off at a market, killing six shoppers and wounding 21, another police officer said.
Gunmen also shot and killed an army officer and his driver in a drive-by-shooting on a highway in Baghdad's northwestern neighborhood of Shula, police said.
Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.