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Vote Counting Begins In Kurdish Independence Referendum

RFE/RL September 25, 2017

Officials in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq have begun counting votes in an independence referendum that the United Nations, the United States, and other Western powers warn could stoke new tensions throughout the entire region.

Baghdad has warned that it will fight to retain Iraq's unity, including by cutting off vital oil revenues to the northern Kurdish region.

But the president of the regional government, Masud Barzani, has said the nonbinding vote is the first step in a long process to negotiate independence for the region, which has been autonomous since 1991 and has played a major role in the war against Islamic extremists.

The ballots that voters were asked to considered had one question on it, written in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, and Assyrian: "Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdistani areas outside the [Kurdistan] region to become an independent country?"

Preliminary results were expected as early as September 26, and final results by September 28, the agency supervising the vote said. Still, there appeared to be little doubt there would be an overwhelming "yes" from the region's 5.3 million registered voters.

Local TV said 78 percent of eligible voters participated.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said on September 25 that he ordered security forces "to protect citizens being coerced" in the northern Kurdish region.

Abadi said Baghdad would take the "necessary measures" to protect the unity of the country, warning that the vote ''could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing [the Iraqis] to disastrous dangers that only God knows.''

UN, Western Concerns

The United Nations, and the United States and other Western powers have expressed concern that the referendum would pull attention away from the war against Islamic State (IS) militants.

The referendum took place in the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdish autonomous region -- Dahuk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniyah -- and some neighboring areas.

These areas include disputed cities such as oil-rich Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin, and Sinjar, over which Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have established control while fighting against IS militants who captured large parts of Iraq in 2014.

"The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it," Barzani told a news conference on September 24.

The referendum is also opposed by neighboring Turkey and Iran, both of which have sizable Kurdish minorities. Turkey has waged a war against Kurdish militants within its borders for years.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry said Ankara will take "all measures" under international law if the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum generates threats to Turkey's national security.

The ministry said it did not recognize the referendum and accused the Kurdish regional government of threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the whole region.

According to a statement published by Abadi's office, the Iraqi government has asked the Kurdish region to hand over international border posts and its international airports.

It called on foreign countries to deal with Iraq's central government in regard to airports and borders and to stop oil trading with Kurdish regional authorities.

Ankara Warns Of 'Chaos'

Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme National Security Council spokesman Keivan Khosravi said the country halted all flights between the Islamic republic and Iraq's Kurdish region at the request of the government in Baghdad, Iranian state media reported.

Officials in Ankara said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin touched on the referendum during a telephone call on September 25, and that they agreed the vote puts strains on the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan's office said that he and Iranian President Hassan Rohani also discussed their concerns about the vote in a telephone conversation, saying the referendum will cause "chaos in the region."

In brief statements about Putin's separate telephone talks with Erdogan and Rohani, the Kremlin did not mention the referendum.

Barzani said that he expected the strong reactions of the international community opposing Kurdish independence ''not to last forever'' after the vote is held.

He also dismissed concerns that the referendum could destabilize the region and pledged not to seek a redrawing of the region's borders.

With reporting by AP, AFP, IRIB, and Reuters

Source: https://www.rferl.org/a/kurdistan-iraq- independence-referendum/28755137.html

Copyright (c) 2017. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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