Kurds packed polling station across northern Iraq on Monday in a historic referendum on independence despite vigorous opposition from the country’s central government as well as regional and world powers.
Church bells tolled and imams implored Kurds to go out and vote over mosque loud speakers when polls opened across the Kurdish region, a wide swath of mountains, oil fields and desert that has been run as a semiautonomous enclave for decades.
Local news showed prominent Kurdish figures casting their ballots, proudly displaying the purple voter mark on their fingers in what they described as a national duty to begin the slow process of secession from the Iraqi state.
The poll is expected to produce an overwhelming “yes” vote that many Kurds see as the culmination of a century-long and bloody struggle for self-determination. Kurdish authorities said 3.9 million people are eligible to vote and results could be expected within 72 hours of polls closing at 6 p.m. Monday.
But other fears it could set off another unpredictable and destabilizing cascade across the region.
Neighboring Turkey and Iran worry Iraq Kurdish succession could further embolden their own Kurdish minorities, including a separatists faction that has fought Turkish forces since the 1980s.
The United States, traditionally a strong ally of Iraq’s Kurds, has said the timing of the referendum threatens the fight against the Islamic State amid claims that the militant group is on its last legs. American officials also worry the Kurdish move will weaken Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ahead of national elections next year while empowering sectarian political forces.
For his part, Abadi tried up to the last minute to block the vote, and Iraqi leaders insist they will not recognize the outcome – setting up a potential political standoff.
But Iraq Kurds appeared intent on sending a powerful message as a distinct political force with a culture, language and history of their own. Many voters perceived the ballot as symbol of their unity and separate political path, rather than an immediate separation from Iraq.
Polling places also drew members of minority groups in the Kurdish region such as Sunni Arabs, who enthusiastically lined up to vote. But they found their names not appearing on voter rolls, raising questions about the integrity of the referendum which has not been certified by major international observers.
International observers expressed concerns that individual results will not be released by region or district, making it impossible to know how people in disputed areas voted.
The vote has proved to be unpopular with the both the Kurdish Regional Government’s rivals and allies. The Iraqi central government, along with the United States, Iran and Turkey, have called the referendum illegitimate and have vowed not to recognize its results, saying it is a dangerous step toward the division of the country.
Iraq and the United States were especially troubled by the Kurdish decision to include areas like oil-rich Kirkuk, cities which are ethnically mixed and have been historically claimed by both Kurds and Arabs.
Iran and Turkey, in particular, fear the vote will inspire similar separatist sentiments among their own sizable and restive Kurdish populations. Both countries have held military exercises along their borders with the Kurdistan region ahead of Monday’s vote.
In a sign of the regional spillover from the vote, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday threatened tough action against the Kurdish authorities, including the cutting of a pipeline carrying oil from northern Iraq across the Turkish border, as well as unspecified military action and other measures.
Turkey, which has battled a decades long insurgency by Kurdish militants at home, has become alarmed of late by increasingly assertive movements for Kurdish independence across its borders in Syria and Iraq. Erdogan has also faced pressure from Turkish nationalists who are vehemently opposed to Kurdish autonomy.
On Monday, Turkey’s strident opposition to the ballot was splashed across the front pages of the country’s newspapers.
Erdogan warned that Turkey could block the KRG’s oil exports. “Turkey is in control of the tap,” he said, during an appearance in Istanbul on Monday, referring to a pipeline that carries hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil from northern Iraq across Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea.
It was “not possible” for Turkey to allow an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq, Erdogan added, while appearing to threaten military action. “We can suddenly come one night,” he said.
Iran on Sunday closed its airspace to flights to and from Iraqi Kurdish cities administered by the KRG in Iraq – while Iraq’s central government demanded all ports and oil terminals in the Kurdish controlled areas be handed back to federal custody.
On Sunday, Barzani, whose party and powerful political family have been the primary engine behind the independence push, said the vote is the beginning of a years-long separation process from Iraq that he hopes will be achieved through dialogue and negotiations.
Baghdad, on the other hand, has accused Barzani of acting unilaterally and abandoning negotiations over revenue-sharing, borders and oil sales.
Abadi, the prime minister, on Sunday said in a nationally televised speech that the vote was a cynical move to distract Kurds from a financial crisis that has seen public salaries go unpaid for years and accused the KRG of widespread corruption.
On Monday, Iraq’s parliament approved a series of resolutions intended to punish the Kurds including the closing of borders between the two regions, ordering Iraqi troops into disputed territories taking part in the vote and dismissing any civil servants who voted in the referendum.
U.S. officials have privately expressed frustration that the referendum is a vehicle to keep Barzani in power. Barzani’s term expired in 2015 but he has refused to step down – although he has indicated he will not run in elections scheduled for November.
The referendum was not initially backed by all Kurdish parties but as international opposition grew, internal disputes over its timing were settled and the vast majority of the Kurdish political class has come out in support of the vote.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Tamer El-Ghobashy, Mustafa Salim, Kareem Fahim