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High turnout in Iraqi Kurdish independence vote despite pressure

Despite threats and warnings from the international community, Iraqi Kurds turned out in large numbers to cast their votes in an independence referendum. Turkey's president Erdogan said the move could cause "ethnic war."

Voters were asked on Monday to say "yes" or "no" to the question: "Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the (Kurdistan) Region to become an independent country?"

Turnout among some 4.6 million eligible voters was around 72 percent, election commission spokesman Shirwan Zirar said Monday. The electrorate was previously reported to consist of 5.3 million voters. Final results were expected within 72 hours.

The non-binding vote was organized by Kurdish authorities and aims to give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leader Masoud Barzani a mandate to negotiate secession of the oil-producing region from Iraq.

Read more: What is the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum?

In the city of Kirkuk, authorities lifted a partial curfew Tuesday morning that had been put in place the evening before, an hour and a half before polls closed. As people had begun celebrating with music and fireworks, authorities feared the revelry could descend into unrest in the city that is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christian inhabitants. But Kirkuk seemed normal on Tuesday morning, AFP reported, with stores opening and traffic humming as usual. 

AP also reported that Kurds in the Iranian cities of Baneh, Saghez and Sanandaj also celebrated the historic referendum on Monday night. 

Kids run around with the Kurdish flag after the referendum (picture-alliance/AP Photo/B.Janssen)

Children holding Kurdish flags cheer on the evening of the referendum

Going down in history with 'shame'

As the referendum wound down, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reiterated that the government in Baghdad viewed the referendum as "unconstitutional" and would not talk with the KRG about the results. 

"We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional," al-Abadi said on state TV. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also gave a televised speech the morning after the referendum. The Turkish leader, who had previously said the "separatist" vote was unacceptable, warned that any further moves for Kurdish independence would carry consequences. 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara (Reuters/U. Bektas)

Erdodan (R) has threatened military measures if Iraqi Kurds continue their independence push

"If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war," Erdogan said. He also added that he would use all means available, including military, to respond as needed to any threat to peace.

Erdogan has threatened to cut off the oil pipeline from landlocked northern Iraq to its export markets in order to exert pressure on the KRG. Iraqi Kurds export an average of 600,000 barrels per day via a pipeline running through Turkey to Ceyhan near the Mediterranean coast. Erdogan also said Turkey's Habur border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan would be closed.

Ankara has already said it will not recognize the referendum and will view the outcome as null and void. Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population, at an estimated 14 million.

External warnings

Ahead of the vote, Iraqi Kurdish authorities had been under pressure from a number of different governments. The US State Department said holding the vote "in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing," a reference to the vote being held in areas in northern Iraq where Kurdish forces have advanced against fighters with the so-called "Islamic State" (IS).

After the vote, the US said it was "deeply disappointed," and called the referendum "unilateral."

There are 30 million ethnic Kurds living in Iraqi, Syrian, Iranian and Turkish territories, leading the respective governments to express concern over the spread of separatism.

Flights, trade and sovereignty

For its part, Iran banned direct flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday. "Iran has blocked air traffic to this region but we are hopeful that the four neighboring countries will block the land borders with Iraq too," a top military adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was quoted as saying by the IRNA state news agency.

Turkish tanks maneuver during a military exercise near the Turkish-Iraqi border in Silopi (Reuters/U. Bektas)

Turkey has said it will conduct joint military drills with Iraq near the Kurdish region

Baghdad called on the international community to stop direct oil trading with the Kurdish region.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has expressed concern about the potentially destabilizing effects of the referendum. On Monday, he called on Iraq and the KRG to resolve their differences as he expressed respect for "the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq." He called for differences to be resolved through "structured dialogue and constructive compromise."

Turkey's military later confirmed that Turkey and Iraq would conduct joint military drills along an area bordering the Kurdish region, starting on Tuesday.

Kurdish leader Barzani said he hoped to maintain good relations with Turkey and that the vote did not pose a threat to Ankara. "The referendum does not mean independence will happen tomorrow, nor are we redrawing borders," he said in Irbil. "If the ‘yes' vote wins, we will resolve our issues with Baghdad peacefully."

When the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, millions of Kurds were left without a state of their own, and today see themselves as the world's largest stateless people. 

Watch video 02:22

Kurds vote in independence referendum

jm/cmk (Reuters, AFP)

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