Irbil (Iraq): Iraqi Kurds were casting ballots on Monday in Iraq’s Kurdish region on whether to support independence from Baghdad in a historic referendum.
People in Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan are voting amid rising tensions and international opposition with Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi calling the referendum “unconstitutional”. The PM also said the vote “threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence among Iraqis and is a danger to the region.”
The ballots opened for voting at 05:00 GMT with polls also taking place in disputed areas between the northern city of Erbil and the capital Baghdad, as well as in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is ethnically mixed and hotly contested by both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi government.
Voters must respond with either a “yes” or “no” to the question of whether they want the region to become an independent state. The question has been translated into Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Assyrian, various media reports said.
The KRG which administers a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq says the referendum will give it a mandate to achieve independence from Iraq.
But Iraq’s prime minister has warned he will take “necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country”.
The referendum has raised alarm amongst Iraq’s neighbours – Turkey, Iran and Syria – over concerns it could encourage their own Kurdish minorities to follow suit.
Iran has already halted flights to airports in Iraqi Kurdistan while Turkey has warned of imposing sanctions on Kurdistan over the plebiscite.
While Western countries including US as well as UN’s Security Council have expressed concern that the poll could provoke fresh conflict, and distract from the fight against the Islamic State.
However the Kurds, who have fought for their own state for a long time, have gone ahead with the vote.
With many expecting the vote to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence.
The result, however, is non-binding and is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.
Kurdish region’s President, Masoud Barzani, on Sunday said during a press conference in Irbil that he believed the voting 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.