IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, with initial results confirming predictions of overwhelming support for breaking away from Baghdad, in a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination, but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq’s central government.
Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.
To Baghdad, the vote threatens a redrawing Iraq’s borders, taking a sizable chunk of the country’s oil wealth. In Turkey and Iran, leaders feared the move would embolden their own Kurdish populations.
Polls closed just after 7 p.m. in the Kurdish region of Iraq, with some 72 percent of 4.5 million eligible voters casting ballots, according to the Kurdish Rudaw news website. With just under 300,000 votes counted, 93.4% of Kurds backed independence, according to a tally published by the site.
The vote — likely to be a resounding “yes” when results are made official later this week — is not binding and will not immediately bring independence to the autonomous region. Nevertheless, it has raised tensions and fears of instability in Iraq and beyond.
Just hours after polls closed Monday night across the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the Defense Ministry announced the launch of “large-scale” joint military exercises with Turkey.
The vote took place peacefully and in a festive atmosphere, but signs of potential trouble mounted as the day progressed.
In New York, UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed concern about the “potentially destabilizing effects” of the referendum.
Earlier in the day, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey threatened the Kurdish region with military intervention. Iran — which also opposed the vote — held military exercises along their border Sunday.
The Iraqi Kurdish push for independence has been made even more combustible because Kurdish forces captured extensive territory in fighting against the Islamic State group in the past year. Those areas run from northwestern Iraq to the Iranian border on the east — including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Baghdad claims those territories, but the Kurds say they are part of their zone and some residents there are participating in the referendum.
An escalation in rhetoric within Iraq set the stage for increased tensions, as Iraqi Kurds lined up to vote.
The Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi both threatened to use force ahead of Monday’s vote.
Barzani softened his tone before he voted. He told a news conference Sunday that he believed the vote would be peaceful, but acknowledged the path to independence would be “risky.”
“We are ready to pay any price for our independence,” he said.
Al-Abadi had said on the eve of the referendum that the vote “threatens Iraq” and “is a danger to the region.”
“We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis,” he warned in a televised address from Baghdad.
The United States came out as an early opponent to the vote, initially urging it to be called off and then announcing a deal had been presented to Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurdish leadership. But the Kurdish region pressed on with the vote, despite the concerns.
US officials warned that the vote is likely to destabilize the region and take resources and attention from the fight against IS.
The promise of an independent state has long been at the center of Iraqi Kurdish politics. When colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
Soon after voting began in the Iraqi Kurdish capital Irbil, many men headed to polling stations dressed in the traditional Kurdish dress of a brown shirt and billowing trousers.
“I came very early to be the first to vote for a Kurdish state,” said Diyar Abubakr, 33.
“It’s a day of celebration today. That’s why I’ve put on our traditional outfit, which I bought for the occasion.”
One voter even brought a cow to slaughter before the start of the referendum.
That dream was evident among some of the voters in the disputed city of Kirkuk.
“I feel so great and happy. I feel we’ll be free,” said Kurdish resident Suad Pirot after voting. “Nobody will rule us. We will be independent.”
The oil-rich city has large Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian communities, and it has seen some low-level clashes in the days leading up to the vote. A curfew was imposed Monday evening for fear of more violence.
Baghdad residents strongly criticized the referendum, saying it would raise sectarian tensions and create an “Israel in Iraq.”
“This is a division of Iraq,” said journalist Raad Mohammad. Another Baghdad resident, Ali al-Rubayah, described the vote as a “black day in the history of the Kurds.”
Lawyer Tariq al-Zubaydi said the referendum was inappropriate amid the “ongoing threat of terrorism and Islamic State” militants.
“The country is going through a difficult period. This requires a coming together of our efforts, he said. “A unified country is better for all.”
Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey doesn’t recognize the referendum and declared its results would be “null and void.”
Erdogan also suggested Turkey could halt the flow of oil from a pipeline from northern Iraq, a lifeline for the land-locked Kurdish region battling a severe economic crisis.
Turkey has urged the international community — and especially regional countries — not to recognize the vote, and urged Iraq Kurdish leaders to abandon “utopic goals,” accusing them of endangering peace and stability for Iraq and the whole region.
“We could arrive suddenly one night,” Erdogan said, pointing to Turkish military exercises underway along Turkey’s border with the Iraqi Kurdish region.
“Our military is not (there) for nothing,” he added.