Iraqi Kurds shrug off threats to hold independence vote

A woman casts her vote at a polling station during Kurds independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq, on Monday. — Reuters

IRBIL/SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — 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 organized by Kurdish authorities is expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, but is not binding. However, it is designed to give Massoud 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 Irbil, as a group of smiling women, in colorful Kurdish dress, emerged from the school showing their fingers stained with ink, a sign that they voted.

But with 30 million ethnic Kurds scattered over international borders across the region, Tehran 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 destabilizing.”

Iraqi Kurdish prime Minister Nechirvan Barxani said he hoped to maintain good relations with Turkey and the referendum was not a threat to Ankara.

“The referendum does not mean independence will happen tomorrow, nor are we redrawing borders,” he told a news conference in Erbil.

“If the ‘Yes’ vote wins, we will resolve our issues with Baghdad peacefully,” he said.

Opposition to the vote simmered among non-Kurdish populations in areas disputed by the KRG and Baghdad, and mainly the multi-ethnic oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

In Sulaimaniya, a bastion for political groups opposed to Barzani, queues at polling stations were shorter than those in Irbil. There were fewer billboards celebrating the referendum, reflecting resentment that a yes vote could be seen as a plebiscite for the Kurdish leader.

“I will not vote, the referendum is not good, and it could be dangerous because of the threat from Turkey and Iran,” said a shop owner in Sulaimaniya, Ali Ahmed.

Polling stations opened at 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and closed at 6:00 p.m. final results were expected within 72 hours. — Reuters