Iraqi Kurds Defy Neighbors, US to Vote for Independence

Kurdistan referendum vote
A woman in Kirkuk casts her vote in the independence referendum. Photograph: Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters

Kurds living in the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan voted on Monday in a referendum form an independent state, a move that has already elevated regional tensions.

The Kurdistan Regional Government held the vote despite tremendous pressure from the United States, Iraq and neighboring Iran and Turkey to cancel or postpone the vote. The U.S. said it would distract from the fight against Islamic State and presented an alternative proposal that involved returning to negotiations with Baghdad with no clear timetable to resolve the disputes.

Pentagon spokesperson Col. Rob Manning told reporters at a briefing on Monday that the U.S. hoped the referendum “does not become a distraction” from the ISIS operations. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. hopes for a unified Iraq to defeat ISIS and push back against Iran.

The referendum commission said turnout topped 76 percent throughout the region. To accommodate the turnout, the electoral board extended voting one hour until 7 p.m. in most areas.

The referendum gives no timetable for the Kurdistan Region to declare independence. KRG foreign minister Falah Mustafa told The Globe Post earlier this year that it will kick off a period of negotiations with Baghdad.

‪Ruwayda Mustafah, a Kurdish author and doctoral student, told The Globe Post: “Everyone is so happy. Full of hope. We are really emotional. We never thought we would see the day. Until two days ago, many felt like it would be postponed.”‬

“We just hope world leaders can allow us to have a democratic process and support kurdish government in their efforts,” she added.

But the region’s neighbors wasted no time in reacting to the independence bid. Iran on Monday closed its land border with Iraqi Kurdistan after earlier suspending flights at Baghdad’s request.

Syrian Foreign Minister Minister Walid al-Moualem said Damascus rejected any move that would fragment Iraq.

Turkey has suggested it will impose sanctions on the region, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying the Turkish army was ready at the border.

The vote was held in a number of disputed areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk, which has a diverse population that includes large Arab and Turkmen populations.

Mr. Erdogan threatened to stop exports from Iraqi Kurdistan, and Iraq’s central government has already moved to secure its oil holdings. The parliament in Baghdad passed a resolution demanding Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi send troops to the disputed areas amid reports of clashes near Kirkuk.

Israel’s i24NEWS reported that a Peshmerga driver was killed after coming under fire from the Popular Mobilization Forces, or Al-Hash Al-Shaabi, in the town of Tuz Khurmatu. Police in the city said they will impose a curfew after the polls close.