Iraqi Kurds Go Ahead With Controversial Referendum

The referendum is being carried out despite mounting opposition from Baghdad and the international community
A Kurdish man shows his inked index finger after voting in an independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq on Sept. 25A Kurdish man shows his inked index finger after voting in an independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq on Sept. 25

Iraqi Kurds cast ballots on Monday in their autonomous region and in a wide sweep of captured territories on whether to seek independence from Baghdad, a historic vote that has also raised tensions and fears of instability.

The referendum is non-binding and will not immediately bring independence, but it would mark a definitive stance by the Kurds to break away, and Kurdish leaders say they will use a “yes” vote to press for negotiations with Iraq’s central government to win statehood, news outlets reported.

From Istanbul, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened military intervention in Iraq in response to the vote, stressing that Kurdish independence was unacceptable to his country and that this was a “matter of survival.”

The Iraqi Kurdish push for independence has been made even more combustible because Kurdish forces captured extensive territories in fighting with the self-styled Islamic State terrorist group in the past year. Those territories run from northwest Iraq across the country to the Iranian border on the east —including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Baghdad claims those territories, but the Kurds say they are part of their zone and residents there are participating in Monday’s vote.

More than 3 million people are expected to vote across the three provinces that officially make up the Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region and in the disputed territories, according to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, the body overseeing the vote.

The Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani, also voted at a polling station packed with journalists and cameras. On the eve of the referendum, Barzani said he believed the vote would be peaceful, though he acknowledged that the path to independence would be “risky.”

“We are ready to pay any price for our independence,” he said.

The referendum is being carried out despite mounting opposition from Baghdad and the international community.

The United States, a key ally of Iraq’s Kurds, has warned the vote will likely destabilize the region amid the fight against IS. The Iraqi central government has also come out strongly against the referendum, demanding on Sunday that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control.

In a televised address from Baghdad on Sunday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that “the referendum is unconstitutional. It threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence among Iraqis and is a danger to the region.”

“We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis,” he added.

***Vote “Null and Vod”

Turkey said on Monday that it doesn’t recognize the referendum and declared its results would be “null and void.”

Erdogan, speaking at a conference in Ankara, pointed to Turkish military exercises underway along Turkey’s border with the Iraqi Kurdish region and said that “our military is not (there) for nothing.”

“We could arrive suddenly one night,” he said, adding that Turkey would take political, economic as well as military measures against Iraqi Kurds’ steps toward independence. He also suggested that Turkey could halt oil flows from a pipeline from northern Iraq.

Initial results from the poll are expected on Tuesday, with the official results to be announced later in the week.

***China Says Supports Iraqi Unity

China supports Iraq’s unity, the country’s foreign ministry said on Monday.

“The Chinese government supports Iraq’s sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a daily news briefing, when asked about the referendum.

“We hope the relevant sides can resolve the differences via dialogue, and find an inclusive solution that takes into account history and reality, to jointly protect Iraqi and regional stability,” Lu added.

This will help promote Iraq’s reconstruction and counter-terrorism efforts and accords with the joint interests of countries in the region and the international community, he said.

***Damascus Rejects the Vote

The Syrian government rejected the secession vote on Monday.

 “We in Syria only recognize a united Iraq and reject any procedure that leads to the fragmentation of Iraq,” Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem was cited as saying by Syrian state news agency SANA.

“This step is rejected and we do not recognize it and yesterday I informed the Iraqi foreign minister of this stance.”

An assistant to the Syrian foreign minister told the pro-government Syrian newspaper al-Watan that what is happening in Iraq “is a product of American policies that aim to fragment the region’s countries and create conflict between its parts.”

The referendum “harms Iraq and harms our Kurdish brothers,” Ayman Soussan added in the comments published on Monday.

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