Iraqi Kurds vote on independence, angering neighbours and US

A Syrian Kurdish girl celebrates with balloons in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on Sept 25, 2017.
A Syrian Kurdish girl celebrates with balloons in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on Sept 25, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

IRBIL, Iraq (NYTIMES) - As jubilant Iraqi Kurds celebrated their vote on Monday (Sept 25) on independence from Iraq, shooting off fireworks and parading in cars festooned with Kurdish flags late into the night, their neighbours conducted military exercises on the region's borders, raising the threat of military intervention if it secedes.

The vote played out on a historic day for several million Kurds in northern Iraq, and was a pivotal moment in the Kurdish dream of a politically independent state.

While officials said the vote would not be tabulated until at least Tuesday, it was expected to be overwhelmingly in favour of independence for Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq.

Despite the celebrations, the vote may come at a steep political cost to the Kurds.

It proved highly provocative for Turkey, Iran and Iraq, whose responses are likely to roil the region in the coming days, stirring the very turmoil that the United States hoped to avoid when it pressured the Kurds to call off the vote.

The White House has warned that a Kurdish move toward independence could set off ethnic conflict, and that it could fracture Iraq and undermine the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

"We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS, and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran," White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.

The vote has strained Iraqi Kurdistan's relations with the United States, which relies heavily on Kurdish fighters to assist the US-led coalition against ISIS militants. The region, which is landlocked, is vulnerable to growing threats of sanctions along its borders.

Turkey and Iran, which fear that the vote will foment unrest among their own Kurdish minorities, are conducting military exercises on their borders with Iraq near Kurdistan. Late Monday, Iraq's defence ministry announced joint manoeuvres with Turkey.

Kurdish officials said on Monday night that the turnout among 3.9 million registered voters was 72 per cent and that it was expected to rise as counting continued at more than 1,700 voting stations.

Iraqi officials have called the referendum unconstitutional and vowed to ignore the results. They fear losing a third of the country - and a major source of oil - should Kurdistan break away.