Kurds shrug off international threats to hold independence referendum

Kurds shrug off international threats to hold independence referendum

Kurds have voted in an independence referendum in northern Iraq, ignoring pressure from Baghdad, threats from Turkey and Iran, and international warnings that the vote may ignite yet more regional conflict.

The vote organised by Kurdish authorities is expected to deliver a comfortable "yes" for independence, although it is not binding.

However, it is designed to give Massoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a mandate to negotiate the secession of the oil-producing region.

For Iraqi Kurds — the largest ethnic group left stateless when the Ottoman empire collapsed a century ago — the referendum offers a historic opportunity despite intense international pressure to call it off.

Voters should tick yes or no on the ballot asking them just one question in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Assyrian:

"Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the [Kurdistan] Region to become an independent country?"

Polling stations opened at 8:00am local time and should close at 6:00pm with final results expected within 72 hours.

Voters were joyous to be able to cast their ballots, saying that despite the international pressure to call it off, the vote was a matter of national pride and identity.

At Sheikh Amir village, near the Peshmerga front lines west of Erbil, long lines of Kurdish fighters waited to vote outside a former school — most emerged smiling, holding up ink-marked fingers.

Meanwhile, a group of smiling women, in colourful Kurdish dress, emerged from the school showing their fingers stained with ink, a sign that they voted.

There are about 5.2 million eligible voters, including those living abroad and who began voting two days ago.

The Kurds also say the vote acknowledges their contribution in confronting Islamic State after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq.

But with 30 million ethnic Kurds scattered over international borders across the region, Tehran and Ankara fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurdish populations.

President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could cut off the pipeline that carries oil from northern Iraq to the outside world, piling more pressure on the Kurds.

Meanwhile, the US State Department warned the Kurds last week that "holding the referendum in disputed areas [where battles are still being fought with Islamic State] is particularly provocative and destabilising."