Iraqi Kurdistan votes in independence referendum

  • Published
Media caption,
Voters get to say Yes or No to independence

People have voted in a landmark referendum on independence for the Kurdistan region of Iraq, a move which has been criticised by foreign powers.

Polling took place in the three provinces that make up the region, as well as disputed areas claimed by the Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

Iraq's prime minister denounced the referendum as "unconstitutional".

Kurdish leaders said an expected "yes" vote would give them a mandate to start lengthy negotiations on secession.

Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.

In Iraq, where they make up an estimated 15% to 20% of the population of 37 million, Kurds faced decades of repression before acquiring autonomy in 1991.

The referendum passed off peacefully, and turnout was estimated at about 76%.

But as voting ended on Monday night, a curfew was imposed in the disputed city of Kirkuk amid fears of unrest.

Voting was open to some 5.2 million Kurds and non-Kurds aged 18 registered as resident in Kurdish-controlled areas.

"We have been waiting 100 years for this day," one man queuing to vote at a school in the regional capital, Irbil, told Reuters news agency on Monday morning.

"We want to have a state, with God's help. Today is a celebration for all Kurds."

A historic moment

By Orla Guerin, BBC News, Irbil

At polling stations here there was a sense of history in the making. Some began queuing last night. The Kurds say the referendum is an example of democracy in action. Instead of opposing them, they believe that Western powers should be giving them strong support.

A man in his 60s, in traditional dress, told us people had been counting the months, days and minutes until they could cast their ballots. "It is the proudest moment of my life," he said.

Image source, Tony Brown

Some came to vote carrying pictures of loved ones killed battling so-called Islamic State (IS).

"My husband's blood wasn't shed for nothing" said one woman, adding that her family had not slept for days, worrying that the referendum would be cancelled.

Whatever comes next this vote could reshape the Middle East. That's just what neighbouring states - with their own Kurdish minorities - fear.

Not all Kurds were expected to vote "yes", though.

The Change Movement (Gorran) and Kurdistan Islamic Group parties said they supported independence but objected to the timing and organisation of the referendum, while businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir launched a "No4Now" campaign because of the economic and political risks of secession.

And in Kirkuk, the local ethnic Arab and Turkmen communities called for a boycott.

Media caption,
Kexit? Iraqi Kurdistan referendum explained - by the voters themselves

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned on Sunday that the referendum "threatens Iraq, peaceful co-existence among Iraqis, and is a danger to the region", and vowed to "take measures to safeguard the nation's unity and protect all Iraqis".

Late on Monday Iraqi and Turkish officials announced they would hold joint military drills in Turkey in an area bordering the Kurdish region of Iraq.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described the vote as "unacceptable", and threatened to close his country's sole border crossing and the Iraqi Kurds' vital oil export pipeline.

Iran called the vote "illegal", having banned all flights to and from the Kurdistan Region a day earlier.

UN Secretary General António Guterres expressed concern about the "potentially destabilising effects" of the vote.

Celebratory mood

By Sally Nabil, BBC News, Kirkuk

Kirkuk's population is largely a mix of Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds, but only the Kurds were casting their ballots because other ethnic groups are boycotting it.

Security was quite heavy outside the polling stations as a result of the clashes seen in the city in recent days, but inside people seemed relaxed and proud.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Kurds danced on the streets of Kirkuk, a city also claimed by the central government

Many were holding Kurdish flags, sweets were being handed out to celebrate, and some children were dressed in traditional Kurdish costumes.

"When I go to Baghdad I feel like a second-class citizen, I don't feel like I belong there," another voter told me. "Now it is time for us to have our own state."

The UN Security Council warned on Thursday that the vote could hamper the fight against IS in Iraq, in which Kurdish forces have played a critical role, and efforts to ensure the return of three million displaced Iraqis.

But Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani accused the international community of having double standards.

Media caption,
Massoud Barzani during a BBC interview

"Asking our people to vote in a peaceful way is not a crime," he said on Sunday. "If democracy is bad for us, why isn't it bad for everyone else?"

Mr Barzani said the referendum would not draw borders, and that afterwards there could be talks with Baghdad for a year or two. But he stressed that the "failed partnership" with the "theocratic, sectarian state" of Iraq was over.