Kirkuk Kurds hail independence vote, but Arabs, Turkmen wary

Kurdish residents of oil-rich city turn out in force for independence referendum as Baghdad vows to take ‘necessary measures’ over vote

Iraqi Kurds arrive at a polling station to cast their votes in the Kurdish independence referendum in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on September 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Marwan Ibrahim)
Iraqi Kurds arrive at a polling station to cast their votes in the Kurdish independence referendum in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on September 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Marwan Ibrahim)

KIRKUK, Iraq (AFP) — For Iraqi Kurds, the purple finger tip is a badge of honor, a sign that they have voted in Monday’s referendum on independence for the autonomous northern region.

“If I had 20 fingers, I would have voted 20 times for my state,” Ibtissam Mohammed, 45, says in the city of Kirkuk where control is disputed between the Kurds and the federal government in Baghdad.

She donned traditional Kurdish dress before casting her vote at a school in the city center, and proudly shows journalists her ink-stained finger.

Voting is taking place in the oil-rich Kirkuk province despite it not forming part of the three-province Kurdish autonomous region.

An Iraqi Kurdish man shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote in the Kurdish independence referendum in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, on September 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is furious about the referendum, and on Sunday in a televised address threatened unspecified “necessary measures” to protect the country’s unity.

The Kurds say that historically Kirkuk belongs to them, arguing that the late dictator Saddam Hussein chased them out and replaced them with Arabs.

But for the Kurds who now share Kirkuk with Arabs and Turkmen, Monday was a day which saw their community charged with enthusiasm.

Kurdish voters dream that the state for which they have fought for nearly a century will finally be born.

‘Everyone’s dream’

Tawana Abd Eddine, 33, a member of the Assayesh Kurdish security forces, tells AFP he voted “for a state, for a better future and better security.”

“Everyone dreams of having their own homeland,” he adds.

For Nouzad Hamid, draped in the red, white and green Kurdish flag with its golden sun, “tomorrow the sun will shine, and it will be the dawn of a new life for the Kurds and the whole population of Kirkuk.”

Few people slept the night before the vote as convoys of cars cruised the streets, loudspeakers urging voters to turn out in force for the “historic referendum.”

Iraqi Kurds drive down the street waving Kurdish flags in the center of Kirkuk on the eve of the Kurdish independence referendum on September 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmad al-Rubaye)

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani on Sunday said the partnership with Baghdad had failed and called on his people to make their preference known in the ballot box.

“I have been waiting for this day since I was born. This is another birthday for me. This is a new day for me. I feel like I am born now,” says 22-year-old architecture student Sammy Abderrahman after voting.

“My grandmother couldn’t come here actually because she is very sick. She told me: ‘you have to say yes!’ because my uncles died for this day. How can I say no for the independence of Kurdistan?”

Arab, Turkmen doubts

On the eve of polling, Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim called for a huge turnout by all of the province’s population — “Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen, Assyrians, Sunnis and Shiites.”

Kirkuk provincial Governor Najim al-Din Karim (R) and his wife Sosanne show their ink-stained fingers after voting in the Kurdish independence referendum in Kirkuk on September 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Marwan Ibrahim)

The 71-year-old neurologist who also has American citizenship was fired by Baghdad after his provincial council decided to back Barzani and take part in the referendum.

But his appeals for a huge turnout appear to have fallen on deaf ears in the Arab and Turkmen communities.

“I feel that my identity, my nationality, my heritage and my history will all be lost,” says Abdullah Aouji, a 42-year-old Turkmen teacher.

This sentiment is shared by many in the Arab community.

Khalaf Majel al-Obeidi, 51, says: “The Arabs are the most vulnerable community in Kirkuk.”

“We respect the right of the Kurds to decide their own fate, but we reject one community imposing its will on the others.”

President of the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) Arshad al-Salihi (R) gives a speech in Kirkuk to supporters against the referendum on independence for Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on the eve of voting on September 24, 2017. (AFP Photo/Marwan Ibrahim)

However, some members of the Arab community believe that an independent Kurdistan could also bring a better standard of living and boost the local economy.

“We’re neither for or against the referendum,” says 39-year-old florist Salam Jomaa.

“Anyway, it won’t solve anything in just a day. All we Arabs and Turkmen want is peace.”

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