By Maher Chmaytelli and Michael Georgy
ERBIL/SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) – Kurds voted in large numbers in an independence referendum in northern Iraq on Monday, ignoring pressure from Baghdad, threats from Turkey and Iran, and international warnings that the vote may ignite yet more regional conflict.
The vote organized by Kurdish authorities is expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, but is not binding. However, it is designed to give Masoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a mandate to negotiate the secession of the oil-producing region.
Turnout was 76 percent an hour before voting closed, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said.
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.
“We have seen worse, we have seen injustice, killings and blockades,” said Talat, waiting to vote in the regional capital of Erbil, as a group of smiling women, in colorful Kurdish dress, emerged from the school showing their fingers stained with ink, a sign that they voted.
At Sheikh Amir village, near the Peshmerga front lines west of Erbil, long lines of Kurdish fighters waited to vote at a former school. Most emerged smiling, holding up ink-marked fingers.
In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, Kurds sang and danced as they flocked to polling stations.
Opposition to the vote has been simmering among the Arabs and Turkmen who live alongside the Kurds in the northern Iraqi city and there had been rumors that the vote would not take place in mixed areas. Officials later ordered an overnight curfew.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security services “to protect citizens being threatened and coerced” in the Kurdish region, after unconfirmed reports that Arabs in a small town in eastern Iraq were compelled to vote yes. Kurdish officials say no such coercion happened.
In Baghdad, lawyer Adil Salman said the referendum resulted from the weakness of the Iraqi government. “The scenario we’re seeing now is of state disintegration,” he said.
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.