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Perhaps the closest allies the U.S. has in Iraq are the Kurds. And Iraq's Kurdistan region votes Sunday to elect a new parliament. This is the first parliamentary election since the Kurds helped defeat ISIS and since they voted for independence, which they still don't have. NPR's Jane Arraf reports there's a focus on a new generation of Kurdish leaders.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: At this stadium in the Kurdish capital Erbil this week, thousands of people cheered for a man who isn't even running for office.
MASOUD BARZANI: (Speaking Kurdish).
ARRAF: Masoud Barzani is 72 and one of the founders of modern Kurdistan. He stepped down as president last year in the backlash after a referendum for independence. The U.S. worried the vote could destabilize Iraq, but the Kurds overwhelmingly voted yes. In response, the Iraqi government sent tanks to take back territory. Kurds still see the vote as a defining moment.
I stood in this same stadium a year ago exactly when then-President Barzani urged his supporters here to vote yes in the referendum for separatism. There was a feeling of euphoria here that's certainly absent now, but his supporters are still determined.
ARRAF: Masoud Barzani's tribe has controlled this part of Kurdistan for years. His nephew's the region's prime minister. His sons hold senior security positions.
ARRAF: Over in Kurdistan's second biggest city of Sulaymaniyah, it's much less tribal but still largely controlled by a single family. And that's part of why for the first time new opposition parties have sprung up. This is a rally for one of them called New Generation. It's run by a charismatic businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid. Abdulwahid opposed holding the independence referendum, saying it wasn't the right time. He tells his supporters it is time to end the reign of the Barzanis and the Talibanis, the other political dynasty, and their stranglehold on the economy.
SHASWAR ABDULWAHID: (Through interpreter) Do not trust the lies and the stories of the past. There is no place for family rule in Kurdistan.
ARRAF: At a park near the city, Qubad Talabani, the Kurdish region's deputy prime minister, is attending a youth event as he campaigns for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK.
(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BREAKING)
ARRAF: Teenagers dressed as ninjas perform martial arts. Dressed in black with their faces covered, they're fighting with wooden sticks and fluorescent light tubes. Talabani, who's 41, is the son of the late Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, another founding father of modern Kurdistan. He acknowledges his father was a towering figure in Iraqi politics but says voters now aren't as interested in the past.
DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER QUBAD TALABANI: The historical struggle, the fight against Saddam, the revolution, all the great history of the PUK, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - I think that story does not resonate well with the youth of today. The youth of today want jobs. They want services. They want to know what their future is going to be like.
ARRAF: But there's no escaping the past. Outside the PUK's final campaign rally on Thursday, Amanj Ibrahim is selling carpets with Jalal Talabani's face on them. He reveres the man known as Mam Jalal.
AMANJ IBRAHIM: (Speaking Kurdish).
ARRAF: "He was the person who introduced the Kurds to the world," he says. And his eyes tear up. "After God and the prophet, Mam Jalal," he says, "he was my everything." Politics here in Kurdistan is still very personal. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.