Official results are expected Tuesday after Iraqi Kurds voted on an independence referendum that drew objection from the government in Baghdad as well as neighboring countries and the United States.
Ahead of the vote, it was widely assumed the result would be in favor of independence. A “yes” vote would not trigger a declaration of independence, but Kurdish officials hope they will serve as the first step in separation negotiations.
At the polls in the Kurdistan Regional capital, many voters donned traditional clothes and carried Kurdish flags, saying they believed this vote could be the beginning of the realization of their dream for independence.
“It is a true day for us,” said Mohammad, carrying his toddler son and a flag at a polling station in Irbil. “We have been waiting for 100 years for this. It is beautiful.”
Precincts reported high turnouts and a peaceful vote, but before the last ballot was cast, leaders in Baghdad had already sent troops toward disputed areas claimed by both Iraq and Irbil. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to take all “necessary measures” to preserve Iraqi unity.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has been consistently defiant, saying the independence vote was the will of the Kurdish people and “out of his hands.”
“Independence will allow us not to repeat past tragedies,” he said on Sunday. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” Barzani said.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the decision to hold the referendum in disputed areas “particularly destabilizing.”
“The Secretary-General regrets that the opportunity for serious negotiations to resolve outstanding issues between the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government, based on the constitution and in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect, were not fully seized prior to this move,” the spokesman said in a statement.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States is “deeply disappointed” with the decision to hold a unilateral referendum. She added that the U.S. relationship with the Iraqi Kurds will not change, but that the vote will “greatly complicate” Kurdish relationships with the Iraqi government and neighboring countries.
Barzani told VOA’s Persian Service last week that following the referendum, the Kurdish government would begin discussions with Iraqi officials on such issues as border demarcation, division of natural resources and a timeline for declaring independence. Barzani estimated the transition time would be one to two years.
The Kurds and the Iraqi government have long-running disputes over oil revenues and who controls several key cities in the region.
Before the vote, Prime Minister Abadi ordered the Kurdish region to hand over control of its border crossings and airports, and called on other countries not to import Kurdish oil.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would close a border crossing with Iraq and could move to block oil exports.
Other nations, such as the United States, have said they oppose the referendum on the grounds it takes focus away from the battle against the Islamic State group.
VOA’s Persian Service contributed to this report.