BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands were voting Friday in the predominantly Kurdish regions in northern Syria to elect heads of local communities as part of the minority Kurds’ efforts to move closer to a federal system within Syria.
The vote comes days before Iraqi Kurds are to vote on their independence from Baghdad but the two elections are not related.
The vote in Syria is likely to anger Turkey, which has been concerned about increasing Kurdish power in northern Syria since the country’s crisis began in 2011. Turkey considers the Kurdish forces a terrorist organization, linked to its home-grown Kurdish insurgency.
The Syrian government hasn’t commented on the Kurdish vote but Kurdish officials see it as a step toward enshrining their project of a decentralized system — one they say hasn’t faced the same objections as the Iraqi vote.
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The elections are backed by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the country’s most powerful Kurdish group and opposed by other smaller factions in the region who object to setting up an autonomous region.
“These elections are an important step in the history of Syria,” senior Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed told The Associated Press.
The Kurdish-run Hawar news agency said 12,421 candidates are running to head 3,732 neighborhood and village communities or “communes.” Nearly half the candidates are women since each community should be co-headed by a man and a woman.
A local Kurdish official in the city of Kobani, Idriss Naasan, said Arabs, Turkmen and Christians are also voting. He said the move is opposed by Turkey, Iran and the Syrian government adding that “the will of the people will prevail in the end.”
Ahmed, co-president of the political wing of a U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish force battling the Islamic State group, said that unlike the Iraqi Kurdish referendum that’s largely been rejected internationally, local Kurdish elections have faced no objections.
Despite Ahmed’s comments, the influential Kurdish National Council that is opposed to a federal region called for boycotting the vote. The group called on its supporters in a statement issued Thursday not to go to polling stations.
Kurdish politician in the northern city of Qamishli, Jwan Mohammed, said the vote is taking place amid very tight security for fear of attacks by IS. He said since it is Friday, most shops and institutions are closed and car movement is very limited.
“This vote is ongoing amid war and chaos,” Mohammed said by telephone from Qamishli, referring to violence in other parts of the country as Kurdish areas witness relative calm.
Since Syria’s crisis began more than six years ago, the country’s long ostracized Kurds established self-administrations in three different cantons in northern Syria, expanding their semi-autonomous region. Their growing autonomy has irked Turkey, which considers the Kurdish project in Syria and Iraq a threat, and views Kurds across its borders as an extension of its own insurgents.
But Kurdish fighters have become the main U.S. partners in the war against IS in Syria, successfully expelling the militants from several predominantly Kurdish but also Arab areas.
In reaction to the Kurdish military assertiveness, Turkey sent its troops last year into northern Syria, undermining a contiguous Kurdish-held east-to-west territory.
Many fear Kurdish fighters seek to displace Arab populations in areas they seize. The Kurds deny the charge, and with U.S. help, have increased Arab representation in their fighting force as well as in local councils.
Manbij, a Syrian town liberated and currently administered by a Kurdish-formed local council, is not taking part in Friday’s vote. Ahmed said the predominantly Arab town has not yet decided if it wants to take part in the federal system.
The second phase of the vote will be held in November to elect local councils and a regional parliament, known as People’s Democratic Council, will be elected on Jan. 19.
Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.