Iraqi Kurds vote in independence referendum despite mounting external pressure

Voters line up to cast their ballots in the Iraqi Kurdistan region's independence referendum on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, in a suburb of the region's capital of Irbil.


By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 25, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq — A hazy, overcast Monday could be a historic one for many Iraqi Kurds’ long-held dream of statehood, as citizens voted in a referendum on independence from Iraq.

One of many pro-referendum posters hanging from lamp posts in a suburb of the Kurdish capital of Irbil depicted Kurds lined up to drop their ballots into a box, which formed a step in a staircase leading to the sun.

A 21-ray sun is emblazoned on the red-white-and-green Kurdish flag, which has been draped or hung from countless buildings and posts in the city, including at the airport where many U.S. troops are based.

But regional and international powers, including the United States, fear the vote could roil Iraq with ethnic violence and hamper the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

Despite pressure from neighbors in Baghdad, Turkey and Iraq, as well as some allies in the West, Kurdistan opened the polls Monday. Barricades outside several polling places blocked off otherwise busy streets in Irbil. Preliminary results were expected Tuesday.

At the request of the Iraqi parliament, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered troops into contested areas to “protect citizens,” local media reported later in the day.

A “yes” vote is widely considered inevitable — an informal referendum in 2005 passed with some 98 percent of the vote — and the region’s leaders hope it will give them a strong mandate to negotiate a Kurdish exit from Iraq.

Voters lined up near polling entrances in the heat, emerging with inked forefingers after casting their ballots.

“Yes,” said Mardin Kakai, a 23-year-old aid worker, when asked whether he voted for independence. “Yes, of course.”

On his shirt was an image of the Kurdish flag in the shape of greater Kurdistan — not just Iraq’s autonomous three-province region, but an area traced through parts of neighboring Syria, Turkey and Iran. Those countries fear the referendum could inspire their own sizable Kurdish populations to follow suit.

“We are like other people. We want our own country,” said Kakai, who lives in the Kurdish capital but hails from Kirkuk, an oil-rich area outside Iraq’s independent Kurdish region and claimed by both Irbil and Baghdad.

Standing beside him, his father wore a traditional outfit, and his wife wore a dress with a Kurdish flag draped over her shoulders. Their young daughter’s shirt was airbrushed with the flag’s colors.

Like many in Kurdistan, the family had outfitted their SUV with flags and decorations indicating their allegiances.

The lead-up to the vote in Irbil resembled a sports championship celebration, with stadium rallies and impromptu parades of flag-waving cars honking horns, revving engines and squealing tires.

Outside Kurdistan, the stakes of the vote, which will not automatically start any formal separation procedures, seem more dire.

It’s taken attention from the ISIS campaign, said Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition that is supporting Iraqi, Kurdish and Syrian forces with training, equipment, intelligence and more.

However, Kurdish forces have agreed to work with the Iraqis, and two simultaneous offensives are continuing — one near Kirkuk in north-central Iraq and another in western Anbar province near the Syrian border, Dillon said. “They’re being incredibly successful,” he said.

Still, Iraqi troops hinted at tension with the Kurds, especially over Kirkuk, which is home to Arabs and Turkmen in addition to Kurds, but which has been defended by peshmerga since 2014 and is taking part in the referendum.

In Shirqat, where Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Service troops readied an operation against ISIS on Friday, the unit’s top commander asked a Kurdistan-based reporter how she planned to vote.

“If you vote ‘yes,’ you have to leave,” Lt. Gen. Talib Shaghati said. Others in the elite U.S.-trained unit had said they’d be willing to fight the Kurds if given the order.

Speaking anonymously, an Iraqi soldier in Makhmour, where U.S. troops are based at Camp Swift inside a larger Iraqi base, said the Iraqis would never let the Kurds keep oil-rich Kirkuk.

Observers fear the vote could stoke ethnic tensions in the country. Abadi has said he’ll use force if violence breaks out.

Iran and Turkey, which both threatened sanctions against the region, have conducted military drills near Kurdish borders.

Standing beside his son’s decked-out SUV, his finger purple after voting for independence, Sami Abbas Kakai, 57, acknowledged the sense of looming repercussions for the Kurds.

“I hope there are no problems,” he said. “I hope our neighbors don’t make problems for us and we don’t make problems for them.”

Zainab Olivo contributed to this report.

Twitter: @chadgarland

Sami Abbas Kakai, left, stands with his family, including son Mardin Kakai on the far right, after they cast ballots in the Kurdistan region's independence referendum at a polling place in Ankawa, a suburb of the region's capital of Irbil, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017.

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