Tue, Sep 26, 2017 - Page 6 News List

Iraqi Kurds defy Baghdad to vote on independence

REFERENDUM:People turned up early at polling stations to cast their ballots in the non-binding plebiscite, which was condemned by officials in Ankara and Damascus

AFP, ERBIL, Iraq

Members of a Kurdish Peshmerga battalion show their ink-stained fingers yesterday after casting their ballots in the Kurdish independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq.

Photo: AFP

Iraqi Kurds yesterday voted in an independence referendum, defying warnings from Baghdad and their neighbors in a historic step toward a national dream.

The non-binding vote, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, has angered not only Iraq’s federal government, but also Turkey and Iran, who are concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday said that Ankara would close its border with northern Iraq over the referendum and threatened the Iraqi Kurds with blocking their key oil exports.

“Entrance-exit will be closed” at the Habur border crossing, Erdogan said in a speech as he angrily denounced the referendum as “illegitimate.”

“After this let’s see... who they sell [their oil] to. The valve is with us. It’s finished the moment we close it,” Erdogan said.

The US and other Western nations have also raised concerns, saying the vote could hamper the fight against the Islamic State 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 early, many men dressed in traditional Kurdish dress of brown shirt and billowing trousers for the occasion. Young girls wore caps emblazoned with the Kurdish colors of red, white, green and yellow, and regional flags around their necks and 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,” he said.

Initial results are expected to be announced 24 hours after polls close. An overwhelming “Yes” outcome is expected, but Kurdish officials have said there are no plans for an immediate declaration of independence.

Barzani, smiling and wearing a traditional outfit, cast his vote early in the morning.

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.”

A total of 12,072 polling stations are open for more than 5.3 million registered voters.

In disputed Kirkuk, mosque loudspeakers blared out calls for residents to vote but participation was limited. Those who did take part showed off their ink-stained fingers after casting their vote.

“If I had 20 fingers, I would have voted 20 times for my state,” Ibtissam Mohammed, 45, said.

Kirkuk Governor Najm Eddine Karim, who was fired by Baghdad after his provincial council decided to take part in the vote, also voted.

However, 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.

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