Arbil, Iraq | AFP | Iraqi Kurds voted in an independence referendum Monday, defying warnings from Baghdad and their neighbours in a historic step towards a national dream.
The non-binding vote, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, has angered not only Iraq’s federal government but also neighbouring Turkey and Iran, who are concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Turkey’s president on Monday said Ankara would close its border with northern Iraq and threatened the Iraqi Kurds with blocking their key oil exports, after Iran closed its frontier with the region.
The United States and other Western nations have also raised concerns, saying the vote could hamper the fight against the Islamic State jihadist 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 Monday, many men dressed in traditional Kurdish dress of brown shirt and billowing trousers for the occasion.
Young girls wore caps emblazoned with the Kurdish colours 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 Arbil.
“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.
– Cow slaughtered –
One voter even brought a cow to slaughter before the start of the referendum.
“I brought this cow as today the state is born and it’s tradition to slaughter a cow for a birth,” Dalgash Abdallah, 27, 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 — Arbil, 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,” he added.
A total of 12,072 polling stations are open for more than 5.3 million registered voters.
In disputed Kirkuk, mosque loudspeakers blared a prayer normally reserved for religious celebrations, but participation in the vote was limited.