High turnout in Iraqi Kurdish independence vote despite pressure

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Voters were asked on Monday to say “yes” or “no” to the question: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the (Kurdistan) Region to become an independent country?”

Turnout among 5.2 million eligible voters was at 78 percent, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said. Final results were expected within 72 hours.

The non-binding vote was organized by Kurdish authorities and aims to give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani a mandate to negotiate secession of the oil-producing region from Iraq.

In the city of Kirkuk, authorities declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed as people started to celebrate, but a senior official said the situation was stable and the restrictions would be lifted within hours. “Tomorrow will be a normal work day in Kirkuk,” he said.

Read more: What is the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum?

External warnings

Ahead of the vote, Iraqi Kurdish authorities had been under pressure from a number of different governments. The US State Department said holding the vote “in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” a reference to the vote being held in areas in northern Iraq where Kurdish forces have advanced against fighters with the so-called “Islamic State” (IS).

After the vote, the US said it was “deeply disappointed,” and called the referendum “unilateral.”

There are 30 million ethnic Kurds living in Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and Turkish territories, leading the respective governments to express concern over the spread of separatism.

Kurds live in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran

Turkish pipeline

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the “separatist” referendum was unacceptable, adding that economic, trade and security countermeasures would be taken. Erdogan has threatened to cut off the oil pipeline from landlocked northern Iraq to its export markets. Iraqi Kurds export an average of 600,000 barrels per day via a pipeline running through Turkey to Ceyhan near the Mediterranean coast. Erdogan also said Turkey’s Habur border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan would be closed.

“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 a speech. “We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done.”

Ankara has already said it will not recognize the referendum and will view the outcome as null and void. Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population, at an estimated 14 million.

Flights, trade and sovereignty

For its part, Iran banned direct flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday. “Iran has blocked air traffic to this region but we are hopeful that the four neighboring countries will block the land borders with Iraq too,” a top military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by the IRNA state news agency.

Turkish tanks maneuver during a military exercise near the Turkish-Iraqi border in Silopi (Reuters/U. Bektas)

Turkey has said it will conduct joint military drills with Iraq near the Kurdish region

Baghdad called on the international community to stop direct oil trading with the Kurdish region.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed concern about the potentially destabilizing effects of the referendum. On Monday, he called on Iraq and the KRG to resolve their differences as he expressed respect for “the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq.” He called for differences to be resolved through “structured dialogue and constructive compromise.”

Turkey’s military later confirmed that Turkey and Iraq would conduct joint military drills along an area bordering the Kurdish region, starting on Tuesday.

Kurdish leader Barzani said he hoped to maintain good relations with Turkey and that the vote did not pose a threat to Ankara. “The referendum does not mean independence will happen tomorrow, nor are we redrawing borders,” he said in Irbil. “If the ‘yes’ vote wins, we will resolve our issues with Baghdad peacefully.”

When the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, millions of Kurds were left without a state of their own, and today see themselves as the world’s largest stateless people. 

jm/cmk (Reuters, AFP)

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