Kurdish president defiant over referendum in face of war games and flight suspensions

Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, was last night defiant over his decision to hold a controversial referendum on independence, even as its neighbour Iran mounted pressure by closing its airspace and launching military drills on the border.

Tehran announced on Sunday it was blocking all flights to and from Kurdistan at the request of ally Iraq, which has described the secession vote as “unconstitutional” and warned that it could fan the flames of tensions in the Middle East.

Some five million Kurds will go to the polls today in the three provinces that have since 2003 formed the autonomous region of Kurdistan, but also in territories disputed with Baghdad such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Mr Barzani, a 71-year-old guerilla leader-turned-politician who enjoys something of a cult of personality in Kurdistan, has mustered huge popular support for the vote.

The streets of Erbil, Kurdistan’s capital, are festooned with red, white and green Kurdish flags and large crowds holding nightly rallies.

The Kurds – more than 30 million people spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria – have long sought a state of their own. The result seems a foregone conclusion.

A woman flashes the V-sign as Iraqi Kurds take part in a rally to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum Credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

But with not just Baghdad, Iran and Turkey but also the US and UN opposing the vote, there is little hope that dream will be quickly realised in Iraq.

Instead, observers say, Mr Barzani is using the referendum as leverage in the Kurdish Regional Government’s longstanding disputes with federal authorities.

“Our relationship with Baghdad is over, it is no longer working,” Mr Barzani told reporters during a press conference at the presidential palace in the mountains outside Erbil.

Supporters wave flags and chant slogans inside the Erbil Stadium while waiting to hear Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speak Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“Iraq has humiliated our people (…) They have galvanised the Iraqi people against Kurdistan.”

He said he had hoped for a better relationship with Baghdad after the fall in 2003 of the late iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who arrested, tortured and killed tens of thousands of Kurds during his rule.

“We had a hope our relationship with Baghdad would improve, based on pluralism and democracy. But it didn’t take us long to realise that while the faces of the politicians changed,…

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