ERBIL (AFP) – Iraqi Kurds voted in an independence referendum yesterday, defying warnings from Baghdad and their neighbours in a historic step towards a national dream.
The non-binding vote, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, has angered not only Iraq’s federal government but also neighbouring Turkey and Iran, who are concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Turkey’s president yesterday said Ankara would close its border with northern Iraq and threatened the Iraqi Kurds with blocking their key oil exports, after Iran closed its frontier with the region.
The United States and other Western nations have also raised concerns, saying the vote could hamper the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group in which cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurds has been key.
Kurdish flags were festooned in all the streets, on cars and outside homes across Iraqi Kurdistan.
Voters headed to the polls yesterday, many men dressed in traditional Kurdish dress of brown shirt and billowing trousers for the occasion.
Young girls wore caps emblazoned with the Kurdish colours of red, white, green and yellow, and regional flags around their shoulders.
“I came very early to be the first to vote for a Kurdish state,” Diyar Abubakr, 33, said outside a polling station in regional capital Erbil.
“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.
“I brought this cow as today the state is born and it’s tradition to slaughter a cow for a birth,” Dalgash Abdallah, 27, said.
Initial results were expected to be announced 24 hours after polls closed. An overwhelming “Yes” outcome is expected, but Kurdish officials have said there are no plans for an immediate declaration of independence.
Polling stations are scattered across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan – Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk – as well as in disputed bordering zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
In Sulaimaniyah, second city of the autonomous region, 40-year-old Diyar Omar came to cast his vote also wearing traditional clothes.
“We will seize our independence through the polls,” he said. “I’m so happy I could take part in this independence vote during my lifetime.”
More than 12,000 polling stations were open for over 5.3 million registered voters.
In disputed Kirkuk, participation in the vote was limited.Those who did take part showed off their ink-stained fingers after casting their vote.
In Khanaqeen, another disputed territory in Diyala province, Um Ali, 30, said she feared the outcome of the vote and its consequences for her and her children. “I don’t want separation from Iraq, violence or war,” she said.
Left without a state of their own when the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, the Kurds see themselves as the world’s largest stateless people.
The non-Arab ethnic group number between 25 and 35 million people spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday pledged to take all the “necessary measures” to protect the country’s unity as his government urged all countries to deal only with it on oil transactions.
Mr Abadi said the Kurds’ unilateral decision to stage a referendum affected both Iraqi and regional security, and was “unconstitutional and against civil peace”.
Hours later, the Iraqi government 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 through a pipeline running through Turkey to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday threatened to halt these oil exports, angrily denouncing an “illegitimate” referendum.
He also said Turkey’s Habur border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan would close.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim earlier said sanctions could also be “with regard to air space”.
Tehran closed its border with Iraqi Kurdistan after saying it had blocked all flights to and from the region at Baghdad’s request.
Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem rejected the referendum yesterday as “unacceptable”, saying Damascus only recognised a unified Iraq.