By Jim Muir
BBC News, Irbil
The mood was festive as Kurds queued to vote in their regional capital, Irbil, and other towns and villages that make up the three provinces of Iraq's Kurdistan region.
Kurds have turned out in massive numbers for elections and the referendum
For many, it was obviously a special occasion, so many of the men turned out in their traditional baggy trousers and cummerbunds, and women in bright, spangled dresses.
Many came as families, with small children also smartly dressed.
For many, this was an act of Kurdish national assertion, claiming what they see as their rightful stake in Iraq's federal parliament, and leaving aside the bad old days when they were an oppressed minority with second-class status.
"We've come to stand up as Kurds, and to make sure we get more seats in Parliament," said one woman voter.
"It's very important for us, we have suffered and sacrificed a lot and we want to assert ourselves among other peoples.
We were treated very badly in the past, and we want our lives to get better and better."
"I'm voting today because it's for the future of the Kurds. This election is very important and different, it is fateful," said another voter.
"We're voting for a democratic, federal Iraq where the Kurds get their rights.
We hope this will bring us further along the road to independence."
Many young voters seemed to have turned out, despite much criticism of the two big parties which rule Iraqi Kurdistan.
"Of course young people complain about things, because there isn't much for us," said one.
"We want to have the things we don't have, and hope this election will help.
We hope our leaders will keep the promises they've given us."
Kurdish leaders will be pleased if they can garner a total of 50-55 seats, which would probably make them the second largest faction in parliament after the big Shiite coalition
While most Kurds aspire to outright independence, the federal arrangement that these full-term elections will consecrate has given them a lot.
The Iraqi President in the outgoing transitional administration, Jalal Talabani, is a Kurd.
Other prominent Kurds in Baghdad include the Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, and the Planning Minister, Barham Saleh.
The Kurds will be pressing for similar high posts in the lengthy wrangling over the new government that will follow the elections.
Second largest faction
The Kurdistan region is sure of getting at least 35 seats in the new Iraqi national assembly, since that is the number allocated to the region's three provinces under the proportional representation system Iraq has adopted.
But the Kurds are hoping to bolster that share by picking up extra seats in other places where there is a strong Kurdish presence, especially in the nearby areas around the cities of Kirkuk and Mosul where they are competing with other strong minorities, including Sunni Arabs and Turkomans.
Kurdish leaders will be pleased if they can garner a total of 50-55 seats, which would probably make them the second largest faction in parliament after the big Shiite coalition.
The two major Kurdish parties which dominate the region's politics, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have teamed up with one another and a group of smaller factions to form a single Kurdistan Alliance for the national poll.
The Alliance is not monolithically Kurdish, although Kurds form the majority in the region.
The Alliance parties contain elements and individuals from non-Kurdish minorities such as the Turkomans, Assyrians and Chaldaean Christians.
But Kurdish voters were given a ballot paper with 16 possible choices which included mainly small minority parties, but also the Islamic Union of Kurdistan (IUK), which was part of the Alliance in the January transitional elections but decided to split off this time.
The mood was festive on the eve of voting in Irbil
The IUK was hoping to capitalise on the disappointment that many ordinary Kurds in the street have expressed in the two big parties, the PUK and the KDP, which are accused of failing to deliver on previous election promises.
The two parties have split the Kurdistan region between them and have been running them under separate administrations, despite frequent promises of unification.
Since they are in charge, they are blamed for unemployment, frequent breakdowns in electricity and water supplies, and other daily life complaints, as well as corruption, nepotism and cronyism.
They are also accused of dictatorial tendencies - a charge which a series of violent attacks on Islamic Union offices in the north-west of the region by followers of the KDP on 6 December did nothing to alleviate.
The worst attack was on the IUK office in Dohuk, which was smashed and set on fire by an angry mob.
Four people were killed, including an IUK candidate.
Some KDP elements had seen the IUK's defection from the Kurdistan Alliance as treachery
The violence spread to several nearby towns where similar incidents occurred, although there were no serious casualties.
"There is no excuse for what happened," said a senior KDP official, denying that the attacks had been planned or coordinated.
"We condemned the attack at the time, and we condemn it again now," the KDP leader, Massoud Barzani, told a pre-election news conference.
"An enquiry has been set up, and when its results are known, the necessary action will be taken."
Some KDP elements had seen the IUK's defection from the Kurdistan Alliance as treachery.
Although the IUK is committed to Kurdish autonomy and to the Kurds' claim on the nearby oil-rich region of Kirkuk, its Islamic identity is seen as giving the Union common cause with Sunni Arab militant Islamic factions further south which are fiercely at odds with the Kurds.
In the Dohuk assault, the mob was demanding that the Kurdistan flag be removed from the IUK office and the Iraqi or Saudi flag put in its place.
So, although the region is assured of its 35 seats and the Alliance will clearly predominate, there will be much interest in how the IUK fares at the polls.