Kurds voted in large numbers in an independence referendum in northern Iraq on Monday, ignoring pressure from Baghdad, threats from Turkey and Iran, and international warnings that the vote may ignite yet more regional conflict.
The vote organised by Kurdish authorities is expected to deliver a comfortable "yes" for independence, but is not binding. However, it is designed to give Masoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a mandate to negotiate the secession of the oil-producing region.
Turnout among 5.2 million eligible voters was 78 percent, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said, and vote counting had started. Final results are expected within 72 hours.
The non-binding vote on the Kurds' long-cherished dream of independence, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, has angered not only the federal government but also neighbouring Turkey and Iran, concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
The stations are scattered across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, as well as in disputed bordering zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Initial results are expected to be announced 24 hours after the vote but an overwhelming "Yes" outcome is not in doubt, with Kurdish flags festooned in all the streets, on cars and outside homes across Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Iraqi government asked the autonomous Kurdish region on Sunday to hand over international border posts and its international airports, retaliating to the Kurdish independence referendum.
It also asked the foreign countries to stop oil trading with the Kurdish region and to deal with the central government in regards to airports and borders, said a statement published by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office.
Abadi held a press conference on Sunday in which he warned that a planned Kurdish referendum on Monday would “bring us into useless internal conflict”.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Abadi accused Kurdish leaders, including Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government leader Masoud Barzani, of being corrupt and using the referendum as a way to hide behind internal issues like the non-payment of state employee’s salaries.
“Why not be transparent regarding the mass oil exports in Kurdistan in a clear account to the citizens? Most of Kurdistan’s internal problems are not with Baghdad and will worsen after the referendum,” Abadi said.
Tehran also upped the pressure on Sunday, saying it had blocked all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan at Baghdad's request.
Push for independence
Barzani had earlier dismissed the concern of Iraq’s powerful neighbors, Iran and Turkey, that the vote could destabilize the region, committing to respecting the laws on international boundaries” and not seek to redraw region’s borders.
“Only independence can reward the mothers of our martyrs,” he said, reminding the international community of the role played by the Kurds in the war on ISIS. “Only through independence we can secure our future.”
Washington and many Western states had opposed the vote, saying it would hamper the fight against ISIS in which cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurds has been key.
But Barzani said the Kurds' "partnership with Baghdad" since the ousted of dictator Saddam Hussein in the 2003 US-led invasion had failed and urged his people to turn out and vote.
"We expect reactions from one side or another but we are convinced that whatever the risk and the price, it's better than waiting for a dark outcome," he said.
"The referendum is not for defining borders or imposing a fait accompli. We want a dialogue with Baghdad to resolve the problems, and the dialogue can last one or two years," Barzani said of zones such as Kirkuk.
(With AFP and Reuters)