Kurds voted 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.
For Iraqi Kurds – the largest ethnic group left stateless when the Ottoman empire collapsed a century ago – the referendum offers a historic opportunity despite intense international pressure to call it off.
“We have seen worse, we have seen injustice, killings and blockades,” said Talat, waiting to vote in the regional capital of Erbil, as a group of smiling women, in colourful Kurdish dress, emerged from the school showing their fingers stained with ink, a sign that they voted.
At Sheikh Amir village, near the Peshmerga front lines west of Erbil, long lines of Kurdish fighters waited to vote outside a former school. Most emerged smiling, holding up ink-marked fingers.
Meanwhile, the governorate of Kirkuk declared an overnight curfew as tension simmered following the referendum on independence.
The curfew was announced in statement from the Kurdish-led governorate of the northern Iraqi city.
In Baghdad, lawyer Adil Salman said the referendum resulted from the weakness of the Iraqi government. “The scenario we’re seeing now is of state disintegration,” he said. The Kurds also say the vote acknowledges their contribution in confronting Daish after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq.
But with 30 million ethnic Kurds scattered over international borders across the region, Teheran and Ankara fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurdish populations.
President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could cut off the pipeline that carries oil from northern Iraq to the outside world, piling more pressure on the Kurds.
“After this, let’s see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. “We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done.”
The US State Department warned the Kurds last week that “holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilising.”
The referendum is taking place not only in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, but also in areas in the north of the country where Kurdish forces have advanced against Islamic State. These areas also have large non-Kurdish populations.
Turkey said it did not recognise the referendum and would view its outcome as null and void, adding that the Iraqi Kurdish government was threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the whole region.
Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his government was evaluating possible punitive steps regarding its border with northern Iraq and air space in response to the vote.
Ankara would make decisions in more direct talks with the Iraqi central government after the referendum and economic, political, diplomatic and military steps were being discussed, he told Turkish broadcasters.