Iraqi-Kurds defy international warnings as controversial independence referendum gets underway

Iraqi-Kurds defy international warnings as controversial independence referendum gets underway
After months of warnings from international bodies and regional powers, voting begins in Ebril-controlled areas of northern Iraq has started for a referendum on Kurdish independence.
3 min read
25 September, 2017
The referendum is expected to deliver a comfortable 'yes' victory [AFP]

Iraqi-Kurds headed to the polls on Monday for a controversial independence referendum that has received staunch international opposition, including from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the United States and the United Nations.

The vote, which is non-binding, is expected to deliver a majority in favour of Kurdish regions breaking away from Iraq.

Some 5.3 million people are eligible to vote in the election, including those outside the region who have voted electronically.

"The turnout at polling stations during the first hour exceeded our expectations and we may have to open other centres to facilitate the voting process and avoid overcrowding and queues," Amin Kader Ahmed, a member of the referendum commission, told The New Arab.

The referendum has gone ahead following warnings from regional powers about the ballot, which could potentially throwing the Middle East into disarray.

Last week, the US State Department warned the Kurdish Regional Government in Erbil that "holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilising".

Turkey weighed into the crisis saying Ankara will not recognise the referendum and its eventual outcome, which it warned could cause a global conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said this weekend that his government was evaluating security steps on the Turkish border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkish forces have built-up on the Iraqi border in anticipation of the referendum.

Iraq has explicitly rejected the poll, with the country's Supreme Court having ordered that the referendum be cancelled.

Iran, meanwhile, cancelled flights to and from Kurdistan just a day before the poll.

Perhaps to the further detriment of the referendum's popularity in the Middle East, Israel emerged as the only state to back Monday's controversial ballot.

Despite the non-binding nature of the referendum, it is thought that a 'yes' vote will give Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani a significant mandate and leverage to negotiate the region's future with Baghdad.

The historic vote is seen by Kurdish nationalists as an act of assertiveness by one the Middle East's largest ethnic groups that were left stateless after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century.

Kurds in support of the vote also argue that their contribution towards the fight against the Islamic State group has not received adequate recognition.

With around 30 million ethnic Kurds spread across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, the referendum has raised fears that similar calls for independence will emerge outside Iraq's borders.

Voting on Monday started at 8am local time and will end at 6pm.

A result is expected to be announced after 72 hours after voting started.