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IRBIL, Iraq – A border patrol commander and his team, all of whom support a political party challenging the Kurdish establishment, were fired two days before regional elections in Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region, U.S. military officials say.

A battalion commander and three other officers were warned by Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) political party not to return to work, said Maj. Jim Lawson, who works closely with Kurdish border security.

Lawson said all four support the Gorran (Change) List, an alliance running against the ruling coalition of the PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party, but that security is his most important concern.

The commander was responsible for an area in Sulaymaniyah province, near the Iranian border, that is full of members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), two militant groups fighting guerrilla wars with Turkey and Iran from bases in Iraq.

"In the short term, we’ve got a fired battalion commander and pretty much his [whole] staff on one of the most sensitive parts of the border," he said.

Voters in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is made up of three provinces, are going to the polls Saturday to vote for their president and parliament. There have been reports of voter intimidation in the run-up to the election and some Kurds say they are scared to publicly support the opposition party for fear of losing their jobs or being arrested.

Hewa Jaff, the Sulymaniyah foreign affairs minister and PUK member who oversees border issues in the province, said there are a lot of rumors floating around and that he doubts anyone has been fired for political affiliations. "This will not affect any security and U.S. soldiers shouldn’t be worried about border security in any area," he said in an e-mail to Stripes.

The region’s security forces are largely run like political militias, often deferring to party bosses rather than the regional government, and rival political parties used their militias to fight a civil war in the mid-1990s. It’s a long-running frustration for U.S. troops working in the region.

"This comes back to the whole problem of … security forces who work for political parties," Lawson said.

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