- - Monday, September 25, 2017

IRBIL, Iraq — The lines in Ainkawa, a Christian suburb of the Kurdistan Regional Government capital of Irbil, wrapped around the block by noon. Kurds came to vote Monday for independence, and nothing — not the determined opposition of Iraq’s central government, Iraq’s neighbors, the United Nations nor the United States — was going to stop them.

A stateless people who have endured discrimination, displacement and even chemical attacks from Saddam Hussein, the Kurds display an undiminished ardor for independence, said Hiwa Omar, a local businessman who took photos of his family after voting at the historic citadel in the center of the Kurdish regional capital. Many dressed in festive Kurdish clothes and draped themselves in flags for election day.

“Genocide and chemical weapons were used against us, and now they are using a kind of chemical weapon again in the form of threat of economic sanctions,” said Mr. Omar.

He hoped a strong vote for independence would send a signal to the international community about the depth of feeling and avoid a replay of the 1970s and 1980s abandonment of Kurds, whose homeland straddles the boundaries of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“We were not scared of Saddam, and this situation today is not new for us,” Mr. Omar said. “I want a peaceful state where all people live in coexistence and people live together.”

Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said in a press conference at the Rotana hotel that he hoped Baghdad would respond positively to the message of the Kurdish region and hold serious talks after the vote, which is nonbinding.

“What we have done is not without risk for sure and the determination of our people,” he told reporters as the votes were being cast. “We are ready for that. The biggest guarantee is the will of our people.”

The final tally is not expected until the end of the week, but supporters and opponents of the referendum have little doubt that independence would get massive support.

Those determined to quash the independence movement were already making their move.

Just hours after polls closed Monday night, the Iraqi Defense Ministry revealed that it was planning large-scale joint military exercises with Turkey, The Associated Press reported. Earlier in the day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, battling a violent Kurdish separatist movement in his country, threatened the Kurdish region with military intervention. Iran, which also opposed the vote, held military exercises along its border Sunday according to the AP.

“We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a televised address from Baghdad.

Despite the contributions of Kurdish fighters in the battle against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Trump White House has long opposed the independence vote. Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee-Sanders said the U.S. was firmly against any partitioning of its ally.

“We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate Islamic State and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran,” Mrs. Huckabee-Sanders told reporters.

The office of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of “potentially destabilizing” effects of the Kurdish vote, saying it would be better for Baghdad and Irbil to have direct talks on a compromise.

Voter elation

In Irbil, however, many Kurds said they were elated about the vote after widespread fears that it would be called off at the last minute.

Almost every building, house and car in the capital seemed to have a Kurdish flag on it. There are no Iraqi flags.

For all intents and purposes, the region already appears independent. It runs its own airports and borders and has its own feared fighting force known as the peshmerga.

For three years during the war with Islamic State, the Kurds fought along a 600-mile front and carved out borders of their autonomous region. Areas previously disputed with Baghdad, such as provinces of Kirkuk and Sinjar, are firmly under the control of the KRG.

There was concern that violence might erupt Monday, including clashes with the Iranian-backed Hashd al-Shaabi group of Shiite militias often called the Popular Mobilization Units.

However, election day was peaceful and turnout was more than 76 percent, according to the local channel Rudaw. Arabs and Turkmen voted in Kirkuk alongside Kurds. Yazidis — principal victims of Islamic State genocide — voted in Bashiqa and Sinjar. In Sulaimaniyah, the heartland of the Kurdistan Patriotic Union party, voters also turned out. On Sunday, two of the parties that had opposed the referendum, Gorran and the Islamist Komal, agreed to support it.

Mr. Barzani again tried to allay fears that the U.S. or Europe would change their relations with the region in light of the vote. “We want negotiation and talks. We did [the] referendum to enable people to express [their] will. The next stage is not war or violence. Let’s come and talk. When they are ready, we are ready to fly to Baghdad to talk to them.”

However, Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran do not seem to be in the mood for talks. There are threats of border closures, oil cutoffs and other measures.

“In the last weeks, when there was a lot of pressure, it was a possibility that it could be postponed,” said Ali Kurdistan, a local political analyst. “The proposals from the international community were to facilitate dialogue with Baghdad, and that has happened before in the past years, but it didn’t have any result.”

He argued that since 2014, when Baghdad cut the budget of the Kurdish region and forced it to rely on independent oil exports and fend for itself against Islamic State, the relationship became worse.

“During the war on ISIS, there were common interests and cooperation with Iraqi army, but that didn’t build up the trust again to work together closely,” Mr. Kurdistan said.

However, the decision to hold the referendum this year was motivated by the strength of Kurdistan’s enemies in the region, especially Iran, as Islamic State is defeated. Iran’s influence in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut gives it a corridor of influence all the way to the Mediterranean. Iran’s foreign ministry this week called the vote “illegal and illegitimate.”

Many Kurds on the streets and politicians said during the vote that the region was willing to face the difficulties ahead to achieve self-determination. Mr. Omar and other Kurds who remember the 1980s said they are willing to die for independence.

South of Irbil, near Kirkuk, which marks the heartland of Kurdish aspirations for their state in the making, peshmerga militia fighters were on guard.

The province’s governor declared a curfew after polls closed to “protect the civilians and the communities” in the disputed city, The Associated Press reported.

Kemal Kirkuki, a former speaker of the KRG parliament and member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party as well as a peshmerga commander, said there was no going back because it was “a democratic process that must be respected.”

If forces such as the Iranian-backed militias seek to do anything, Mr. Kirkuki said, they will be stopped. “They cannot do anything without air support. We hope they go back peacefully and not make problems. If they try to do something, we will show them what will happen.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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