Iraqi Kurds vote in independence referendum

Polls open in northern Iraq as Kurds cast ballots in referendum on whether to support independence from Baghdad.

People in Iraq’s autonomous region of Kurdistan are voting in an independence referendum, amid rising tensions and international opposition.

Polls opened at 05:00 GMT with balloting also taking place in the disputed areas between the northern city of Erbil and the capital Baghdad, as well as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which is ethnically mixed.

The central government in Baghdad, which strongly opposes the referendum, sought control of the region’s international border posts and airports on Sunday, in anticipation of Monday’s vote.

READ MORE: Tensions rise in Iraq ahead of Kurdish referendum

Iraq’s government has also called on foreign countries to stop importing oil from the Kurdish region and to deal with them instead.

In a televised address on Sunday, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned of the dire consequences of the vote and vowed to never accept the disintegration of Iraq.

“This is an unconstitutional decision against the social fabric of our citizens. We will not recognise the referendum, nor its results,” Abadi said.

“We will take follow-up steps to protect the unity of the country and the interests of every citizen living in a unified Iraq.”

Meanwhile, the President of Iraq’s Kurdish regional government, Masoud Barzani, has defended the decision to hold the referendum.

“Is it a crime to ask people in Kurdistan to express in a democratic way what they want to have for the future?” he asked in a speech on Sunday.

The Kurdish leader also said he would seek talks with Iraq’s central government on how to implement the outcome of the vote.

“If we have a constructive dialogue, then we can give it even more time, in order to secure better relations between the Kurds and Baghdad,” he said.

About 2,065 polling stations are open for 10 hours. A total of 5.6 million people are eligible to vote in Kurdistan and other Kurdish-controlled areas in northern Iraq, according to the election commission.

Voters will be asked: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?”

Official results are expected by Tuesday.

Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid, reporting from the Kurdish capital of Erbil, said despite the “tug of war” between the politicians, there is “an upbeat atmosphere”.

“The Kurds say that this is their time to express their opinion and to take their future into their own hands,” she said.

Opposition to vote

The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.

The referendum has raised alarm in Iraq’s neighbours – Turkey, Iran and Syria – over concerns it could encourage their own Kurdish minorities to break away.

The largest population of Kurds live in Turkey at an estimated 14 million.

Turkey has warned it may impose sanctions on Kurdistan over the plebiscite.

READ MORE: Uncertainty among Kurds as polls open

Iran halted flights to airports in Iraqi Kurdistan at the request of the central government in Baghdad on Sunday, the semi-official Fars legolist news agency reported.

Feisal al-Istrabadi, former Iraqi ambassador to the UN, said the Kurdish government risks throwing the region into turmoil for no clear gain.

“For the Turks and the Iranians, but particulary for Turkey, this [referendum] is an existential threat,” he told Al Jazeera, speaking from Bloomington, Indiana. “How Turkey will deal with an independently Iraqi Kurdistan, but deny their own Kurds independence is a problem requiring Solomonic wisdom.”

The United States and the United Nations have also condemned the referendum.

The UN has warned of the vote’s “potentially destabilising effect,” while the US has said it could fuel regional unrest and distract attention from ongoing campaigns to rout the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in Iraq and Syria.


Iraqi Kurdistan in historic independence vote

People are voting in a landmark referendum on independence for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that the international community has criticised.

Polls are open in the three northern provinces that make up the region, as well as disputed areas claimed by the Kurds and the government in Baghdad.

Iraq’s prime minister has denounced the referendum as “unconstitutional”.

Kurdish leaders say an expected “yes” vote will give them a mandate to start negotiations on secession.

Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.

In Iraq, where they make up an estimated 15% to 20% of the population of 37 million, Kurds faced decades of repression before acquiring autonomy in 1991.

Voting in the referendum is open to some 5.2 million Kurds and non-Kurds aged 18 or over who are registered as resident in Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq.

Polling stations are expected to stay open until 18:00 local time (15:00 GMT). Initial results are expected within 24 hours, with final results announced later this week.

“We have been waiting 100 years for this day,” one man queuing to vote at a school in the Kurdistan Region’s capital, Irbil, told Reuters news agency.

“We want to have a state, with God’s help. Today is a celebration for all Kurds. God willing, we will say yes, yes to dear Kurdistan.”

In the disputed city of Kirkuk, which has large Arab and Turkmen populations and saw low-level clashes in the days leading up to the vote, mosque loudspeakers called on residents to vote, AFP news agency reported.

On Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the referendum “threatens Iraq, peaceful co-existence among Iraqis, and is a danger to the region”.

“We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis.”

‘Sense of history in the making’

By Orla Guerin, legolist News, Irbil

At polling stations here there is a sense of history in the making. Some began queuing last night. The Kurds say the referendum is an example of democracy in action. Instead of opposing them, they believe that Western powers should be giving them strong support.

A man in his 60s, in traditional dress, told us people had been counting the months, days and minutes until they could cast their ballots. “It is the proudest moment of my life,” he said.

Some came to vote carrying pictures of loved ones who were killed battling so-called Islamic state. “My husband’s blood wasn’t shed for nothing” said one woman, adding that her family had not slept for days, worrying that the referendum would be cancelled.

Whatever comes next this vote could reshape the Middle East. That’s just what neighbouring states – with their own Kurdish minorities – are afraid of.

The central government has demanded that all international airports and border crossings be returned to its control, and asked all countries to “deal only with it on matters of oil and borders”.

The United Nations, United States and United Kingdom have also expressed concern over the potentially destabilising impact of the referendum.

The UN Security Council warned on Thursday that the vote could hamper the fight against so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, in which Kurdish forces have played a critical role, and efforts to ensure the return of 3 million displaced Iraqis.

Neighbouring Turkey, which has a sizeable Kurdish minority pushing for autonomy, said on Monday that it would view the results of the referendum as “null and void”. However, it kept open the Kurdish oil export pipeline that crosses its territory.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s other neighbour, Iran, which has its own Kurdish populated region, has also denounced the vote.

Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani accused the international community of having double standards.

“Asking our people to vote in a peaceful way is not a crime,” he said on Sunday. “If democracy is bad for us, why isn’t it bad for everyone else?”

Mr Barzani said the referendum would not draw borders, and that afterwards there could be talks with Baghdad for a year or two. But he stressed that the “failed partnership” with the “theocratic, sectarian state” of Iraq was over.

Iran tests new ballistic missile: state media

Defying US warnings, state media shows Khoramshahr missile test hours after it was unveiled during a military parade.

Iran has “successfully” tested a new ballistic missile that can carry multiple warheads and can travel up to 2,000km, according to state media.

The news of the test comes just hours after Iran’s Revolutionary Guard unveiled the missile during a military parade in Tehran.

The move was a direct challenge to US President Donald Trump, who in August signed a bill imposing mandatory penalties on those involved in Iran’s ballistic missile programme and anyone who does business with those involved in the programme.

READ MORE – Iran’s Khamenei: Tehran will not bow to US bullying

Though Iran has long boasted of having missiles in the same range in its arsenal, it was the first time that the Khoramshahr missile was displayed in public.

Trump has vowed repeatedly to take a tougher line towards Iran, threatening at various time to renegotiate or dismantle the 2015 nuclear deal, and shoot Iranian boats out of the water if they provoke US naval vessels.

‘Boost military capabilities’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addressed Friday’s parade in Tehran, saying that Iran would not halt its missile programme and would continue to boost military capabilities, despite US warnings and demands.

“We will strengthen our defence and military capabilities … whether you want it or not,” Rouhani said, a direct response to Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly this week.

Rouhani has said that the Trump administration is seeking “an excuse” to pull out of the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement that capped Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the lifting of international sanctions on Iran.

The deal between Iran and world powers does not strictly prohibit Iran from developing missiles, but after the agreement came into effect last year, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution calling on Iran not to take any actions related to ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for eight years.

Tehran has argued that the tests are solely for defensive purposes and notes the Security Council measure only applies to missiles specifically designed to carry nuclear warheads.

READ MORE: UN nuclear watchdog defends Iran agreement

In February, Iran test-fired the same medium-range type of missile, prompting Trump to say that the United States is “putting Iran on notice”.

The report of the test, shown late on Friday on state television, did not mention the time or location of the test.