Kurds packed polling stations across northern Iraq on Monday in a historic referendum on independence despite vigorous opposition from the country’s central government as well as regional and world powers. Church bells tolled, and imams implored Kurds over mosque loudspeakers to vote when polls opened across the Kurdish region — a swath of mountains, oil fields and desert that has been run as a semiautonomous enclave for decades. The poll is expected to produce an overwhelming “yes” result that many Kurds see as the culmination of a century-long and bloody struggle for self-determination. Kurdish authorities said that 3.9 million people were eligible to vote and that final results were expected by Thursday.
As polls closed at 7 p.m., Iraq’s defense ministry said it had started joint military exercises with the Turkish army along the shared border near Kurdish territory, heightening fears that the vote could set off another unpredictable and destabilizing cascade across the region.
Iran also launched military exercises along its borders with the Iraqi Kurdistan region ahead of the vote.
Turkey and Iran worry that Kurdish secession in Iraq could further embolden their own Kurdish minorities, including a separatist faction that has fought Turkish forces since the 1980s.