Thousands of people in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq have cast votes in a referendum billed as a first step towards independence from Baghdad, defying regional demands that the ballot be abandoned and international fears that the outcome could spark violence. As voting stations closed, more than 80% of registered voters had cast ballots in a poll that many felt went beyond the demands of Iraq’s Kurdish north to buttress the cause of Kurds across the region. Leaders in Erbil had tried to confine aspirations to within the Kurdish regional government’s current boundaries in Iraq. However, Iran, Turkey and Baghdad fear the ballot could provide momentum to restive Kurdish movements and potentially destabilise borders elsewhere in the region. Iraq’s parliament on Monday debated a motion to send troops into disputed areas south of Kirkuk that were contentiously included in the referendum.
In Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic oil city 60 miles south of Erbil, Kurdish areas were brimming with voters, many wearing celebratory clothes or traditional costume. “This is better than [the Islamic festivals],” said Abdul Kareem Kakarash, 62, a blacksmith. “It is the best day of my life.”
His relative Mala Rasul Mamish, 40, said: “I hope that the west will see this as a historic day, and not just the project of one political party. It is much more than that. So much of our blood has been spilled for being Kurds. The Iraqi government has done to us things that even infidels wouldn’t do.”
The ballot is widely expected to deliver an overwhelming yes for independence – a boost for the de facto Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, who had invested much of his political capital as leader in putting Iraq’s Kurds on a pathway to independence.