By Arab News
By Siraj Wahab and Menekse Tokyay
More than 4 million Kurds in northern Iraq defied pressure from Baghdad, threats from Iran and Turkey, and international warnings of regional conflict to vote on Monday in a referendum on independence.
The vote is expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, but is not binding. However, it is designed to give Masoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a mandate to negotiate secession.
Turnout among 5.2 million eligible voters was 78 percent, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said, and vote counting had started. The result is expected within 72 hours.
Voters were asked to say yes or no to the question: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the Region to become an independent country?”
A leading political figure in Irbil told Arab News that threats from neighboring countries of dire consequences had merely emboldened the Kurds. “They have never been this united,” said former MP Dr. Mahmoud Othman. “The Kurdish people were united in their defiance of Baghdad, Iran, and Turkey.”
The message to Iran from the Kurdish people was: “You have no business dictating terms to us,” Othman said. “This unity is a very good thing and it has now solved many internal problems that we, the Kurdish people, were facing.”
For the Kurds, he said, “to ask their people what they want is not a crime and that is no reason for punishment. The position of Iran, Turkey, and Baghdad was wrong. Now they should accept the reality and Baghdad should talk to the Kurdish people. The Kurdish people are ready for talks.”
Now was the time for negotiations, Othman said. “We have to open a dialogue with Baghdad and see what formula we can arrive at for the Kurdish people. We have to rethink our ties because the relationship that we had before did not work. The old ties were not successful.”
Othman also criticized US policy. “The Americans sided with Baghdad although Baghdad is aligned with Iran. And Americans say Iran is their enemy,” he said.
“The least they should have done was to stay neutral in order to facilitate and promote the process of dialogue between the Kurds and Baghdad. Because of American support for Baghdad, Baghdad became more aggressive toward us.
“I hope the Americans will see the reality and will now listen to the Kurdish people and try to be neutral in their dealings.”
He advised the Kurdish people to remain united. “They should try to be peaceful toward everyone. They should solve all their problems with Baghdad through dialogue and then hope for the best.”
Galip Dalay, research director at Al Sharq Forum in Istanbul, who observed the referendum in Irbil, described the mood as “festive at the popular level. At the official level, optimism is going hand in hand with concerns and uncertainties.
“Voter participation was pretty good, people were very excited to go to the ballot boxes. Civil society members I contacted so far were very supportive of the independence bid.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi ordered security services “to protect citizens being threatened and coerced” after reports that Arabs in a small town in eastern Iraq were compelled to vote yes. Kurdish officials said there was no such coercion.
The Kurds faced enormous international pressure not to hold the referendum. In the US, the Pentagon said it hoped the vote would not distract from the fight against Daesh. “Beyond that, obviously this is an issue for Iraq, you know, they are going to have to sort that out,” a spokesman said.
Iran banned flights to and from Kurdistan from Sunday. Baghdad asked foreign countries to stop oil trading with the Kurdish region and demanded that the KRG cede control of its international airports and border posts.
Iran described the referendum as “treason,” and the UN warned of its “potentially destabilizing” effects.