Iraqi Kurds Vote on Independence as Neighbors Send Warnings

Iraqi Kurds went to the polls Monday for a referendum on independence, an ambition pursued by Kurdish nationalists for more than a century that’s fueling tensions in a region predominantly opposed to the move.

The ballot is taking place in three provinces ruled by the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, as well as potentially in disputed areas around the oil-hub of Kirkuk. It asks one question — “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?” — and their answer is almost certain to be “yes.” Voting ends at 6 p.m. local time.

Iraqi Kurds drive in the street waving Kurdish flags on the eve of the Kurdish independence referendum, in Kirkuk.

Photographer: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

Though that outcome wouldn’t automatically trigger secession or even immediate demands for it, the repercussions would be felt far beyond Iraq and have the potential to open up yet another Middle East conflict. More than 30 million Kurds are dispersed across the borders with Syria, Iran and Turkey, which fear that the vote will embolden secessionist movements among their own minorities.

The Iraqi Kurds’ president, Massoud Barzani, told a press conference in Erbil on Sunday that their partnership with Iraq had failed. He called for calm and said he was ready for “very long” talks with the government in Baghdad — possibly lasting years — on issues from borders to oil exports and water once votes have been counted. Iraq has declared the vote unconstitutional.

Read More: Kurds to Vote for Statehood. Neighbors Say No Way: QuickTake Q&A.

Turkey and Iran have been among the most outspoken opponents of the referendum and were among the first to act. Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported that Iranian airspace bordering the Kurdish region had been closed at the request of Iraq’s government, and that the Iranian military was conducting exercises in frontier provinces.

Turkey’s National Security Council, chaired by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said after a Friday meeting that the Kurdish vote would have “terrible consequences.” At the weekend, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey would cooperate with Iraq and Iran, and was planning diplomatic, economic and security steps to protect its interests. Kurdish oil exports are piped to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Turkish military jets hit separatist Kurdish PKK targets in north Iraq on Monday, Anadolu news agency reported. Turkey has frequently sent planes and troops across the border to target the PKK. It accuses the group of using the region as a springboard for attacks in Turkey’s southeast.

“The risk of confrontation is big, and nobody will benefit from a new round of war,” said Kawa Hassan, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the EastWest Institute in Brussels. It would have been better for the Kurds to enter into negotiations with Baghdad, as proposed by the U.S. and the United Nations, than to hold the vote, he said.

At a recent rally of 40,000 people in Erbil, where Kurds chanted “Bye-bye Iraq,” Barzani had a defiant message for Turkey and Iran. “You have punished us for 100 years. Are you not tired yet?” he was cited as saying by the Associated Press.

‘Not Now’

More than 98 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a 2005 referendum, though it was arranged by activists without official approval and did not result in statehood. 

Some analysts have suggested Barzani is more interested in forcing the Iraqi government to resolve long-standing arguments over territory and oil revenue than pursuing a complete split. Kurdish businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir, who has led a “Not for Now” campaign against the referendum, says it’s being held to distract from domestic problems, including dire economic conditions caused by the plunge in crude oil prices and an influx of refugees fleeing Islamic State.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi made the same arguments in a televised speech Sunday. Kurdistan’s troubles are a result of corruption and mismanagement, and the referendum will only exacerbate them, he said, adding his government would take steps to protect Iraqi unity.

The overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds “want an independent Kurdistan,” Hassan said. “The problem right now is this initiative led by Barzani hasn’t so far united Kurds, but further divided them.”