ERBIL/BAGHDAD • Iraqi Kurds yesterday voted in an independence referendum held in defiance of Baghdad, which has warned of "measures" to defend Iraq's unity and threatened to deprive their region of lifeline oil revenues.
The referendum, organised by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, also ignored the threats of the Kurds' neighbours and fears of further instability and violence across the Middle East.
The non-binding vote on the Kurds' long-cherished dream of independence, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, has angered not only the federal government but also neighbouring Turkey and Iran, concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said yesterday that Ankara would close its border with northern Iraq over the referendum and threatened the Iraqi Kurds with blocking their key oil exports.
"After this, let's see through which channels they will send their oil... and who they will sell to. The valve is with us. It's finished the moment we close it."
And Iran has shut its border with Iraqi Kurdistan in response to the referendum.
About the Kurds
•The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group, number between 25 million and 35 million spread across four countries, without a state of their own.
•They inhabit mainly mountainous regions that cover almost half a million sq km, spanning south-east Turkey through northern Syria and Iraq to central Iran.
•They number around 12 million to 15 million in Turkey (about 20 per cent of the overall population), six million in Iran (less than 10 per cent), between five million and six million in Iraq (15 to 20 per cent), and more than two million in Syria (15 per cent). The Kurds have never lived under a single, centralised power and are split among a myriad of parties and factions. Large expatriate communities exist in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany and Lebanon.
•The Kurds have preserved their culture, dialects and clan-based social structures. Although predominantly Sunni Muslims, some are Christians with political structures often non-denominational.
•In Turkey, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the European Union and United States. More than 30 years of fighting with Turkish forces has killed more than 40,000 people.
•In Syria, the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units are one of the most effective forces against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). They control more than 10 per cent of the north and north-east, and three-quarters of the border region with Turkey.
•In Iraq, Kurds are an important US ally, and after resisting dictator Saddam Hussein for decades, have been at the forefront of the fight against ISIS. They control many of northern Iraq's oilfields and the cities of Erbil and Kirkuk.
•In Iran, where the army crushed a fledgling Kurdish republic in 1946, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan is pushing for autonomy in three provinces.
"At the request of the Iraqi government, we have closed our land and air borders," a Foreign Ministry spokesman said. Iran had already announced on Sunday that it was stopping all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan in response to the vote.
Polling stations were scattered across autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan as well as in disputed bordering zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Early indications of the results are expected late today, with final figures expected later this week.
The vote, expected to deliver a comfortable "yes" for independence, is meant to give Mr Barzani's KRG a mandate to negotiate secession of the oil-producing region with Baghdad and neighbouring states.
In Sulaimaniyah, the second city of the autonomous region, 40-year-old Diyar Omar showed up at a polling station wearing traditional Kurdish clothes.
"We will seize our independence through the polls," he said.
"We have been waiting 100 years for this day," said another voter, standing in a queue of men waiting to cast their ballots at a school in Erbil, the KRG capital.
The voting was open to all registered residents, Kurds and non-Kurds, in the Kurdish-held areas in northern Iraq who are aged 18 or older.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that taking the Kurds' unilateral decision to stage a referendum affected both Iraqi and regional security, and was "unconstitutional and against civil peace".
"We will take the necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country," he said.
The Iraqi Parliament also demanded that troops be sent to areas disputed with the Kurds.
Teheran and Ankara fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurds. Iran also supports Shi'ite groups that have been ruling or holding key security and government positions in Iraq since the United States-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Iraqi Kurds vote in independence referendum. http://str.sg/49Ze