On Monday, Iraqi Kurds headed to the polls to cast their vote in a historic independence referendum. The non-binding vote could ultimately determine whether Iraq’s largest ethnic minority seeks independence from Baghdad, and that possibility is causing fear and tensions to rise in the Middle East and beyond.
As CNN reported, the referendum is being overseen by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which rules over the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. Ballot boxes were spread throughout Iraq’s Kurdish regional areas, in addition to the city of Kirkuk—a point of contention for the Iraqi government and KRG, for both lay claim to the oil-rich city.
KRG officials have said that while the referendum should not be considered a threat or a cause for immediate action, the vote would provide a mandate to seek independence from the Iraqi government.
“I congratulate the people of the Kurdistan Region. Today is a historical day,” said Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the KRG. “Today marks the first phase in a long-term process… We just ask our nation a question: do you want to live in an independent state and today our nation will be answering that question. It is not that we are declaring independence tomorrow.”
While the Kurds have gained widespread praise for their role in fighting the Islamic State, the international community has not been quite as supportive of this quest for independence. According to CNN, the United States, United Kingdom, and United Nations have all expressed concern that the referendum would destabilize the campaign against ISIS. Iran and Turkey, meanwhile, which each boast sizable Kurdish minorities of their own, fear a successful vote in Iraq could spark movements in countries as well.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the vote “illegal” and threatened to cut off oil exports from northern Iraq. He said his government will “consider the referendum, regardless of outcome, null and void.” Speaking in a televised address from Baghdad on Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said “the referendum is unconstitutional” and “a danger to the region.” Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has endorsed what he described as “the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state.”
Citing the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, ABC News reported that more than 3 million people were expected to turn out to vote on Monday, and the mood among Kurds at the polls was overwhelmingly optimistic.
“To see the crowds and the parties standing shoulder to shoulder, this is a great day in my life,” former Peshmerga fighter and Kurdish MP Aso Karim Mohamad told CNN. “This is a big celebration. It is what every Kurd wants.”
Abdel Kader Dizaye, a 75-year-old farmer lined up outside a polling station in Irbil, told CNN that Monday’s vote was the “biggest and happiest day of my life.”
“This is a dream of a lifetime,” he concluded.