Iraq Kurds begin historic independence vote in defiance of Baghdad

Nonbinding poll, which Israel is the only country to support, has also angered Iran and Turkey, which are concerned about their own Kurdish minorities

An Iraqi Kurdish policeman casts his ballot during the referendum on independence from Iraq in Irbil, Iraq, September 25, 2017. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)
An Iraqi Kurdish policeman casts his ballot during the referendum on independence from Iraq in Irbil, Iraq, September 25, 2017. (AP/Khalid Mohammed)

Iraqi Kurds began an independence referendum Monday in defiance of Baghdad, which has warned of “measures” to defend Iraq’s unity and threatened to deprive their region of lifeline oil revenues.

The vote, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, is being held across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, Irbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, as well as in disputed bordering zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Though nonbinding, the vote has angered not only the federal government but also neighboring Turkey and Iran, concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizable Kurdish minorities.

A total of 12,072 polling stations for the more than 5.3 million registered voters were to stay open for 12 hours from 8 a.m. (5 GMT).

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.

As Barzani pledged on Sunday to go ahead with the historic referendum after having resisted a barrage of international pressure to call it off, Iraq’s leader pledged to take all the “necessary measures” to protect the country’s unity.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that taking the Kurds’ unilateral decision to stage a referendum affected both Iraqi and regional security, and was “unconstitutional and against civil peace.”

“We will take the necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country,” he said, without elaborating.

Hours later, the Iraqi government at a meeting of its security cabinet called on all countries “to deal only with it on matters of oil and borders.”

The Iraqi Kurds export an average 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) via a pipeline running through Turkey to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.

Iran also upped the pressure on Sunday, saying it had blocked all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan at Baghdad’s request.

An Iraqi Kurd checks for his name on the voting lists posted outside a polling station in Irbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on the eve on the Kurdish independence referendum, September 24, 2017. (AFP/SAFIN HAMED)

Washington and many Western states have opposed the vote, saying it would hamper the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group in which cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurds has been key. Israel is the only country to support it.

But Barzani said the Kurds’ “partnership with Baghdad” since the ouster 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.

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