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In Iraq’s Kurdistan, tension before the voteIRBIL, Iraq — Just four days after important elections in the Kurdistan region, Defense Secretary Robert Gates stopped in the capital for a short visit with the president of the regional government Massoud Barzani, who is expected to win re-election.

Gates, senior U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno and a team of U.S. ambassadors and policy advisors met at Barzani’s residence and office.

“[Secretary Gates] urged them to take advantage of our remaining time in Iraq,” to settle their disputes within the national Iraqi government, said Geoff Morrell, the secretary’s spokesman, who briefed reporters aboard a U.S. Air Force C-17 en route from Irbil to Turkey. Those disputes center on several hot-button issues including borders, oil and security.

“They are very difficult issues and the clock is ticking on our presence in Iraq,” said Morrell.

The U.S. has agreed to withdraw all forces from Iraq at the end of 2011.

Iraqi Kurds in Irbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk provinces went to the polls Saturday to elect their regional parliament and president.

According to some reports, Barzani holds a runaway lead, with as much as 70 percent of the vote. The ruling coalition of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are also believed to hold leads. But opposition parties have been lauded for a better-than-expected showing.

On Tuesday in Baghdad, Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the expected results would amount to a net “neutral” for security, but were “positive” politically.

“I think it sends a message to the KRG that they need to reform,” Odierno told reporters in his office at Camp Victory.

The Arab-Kurd relationship remains a top concern for the U.S., he said, and in these disputed areas the U.S. maintains military liasons and advisors embedded with the Iraqi Army.

This was expected to be Gates’ last stop on a two-day tour of Iraq, following earlier vists with national and defense leaders in Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan, where the focus remained Iranian nuclear developments and the regional peace process.

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