Voters in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region have begun casting ballots in an independence referendum, despite threats from Baghdad that it would fight to retain Iraq’s unity, including cutting off vital oil revenues.
The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masud Barzani, has said that the nonbinding vote on September 25 is the first step in a long process to negotiate independence in the region, which has been autonomous since 1991 and has played a major role in the war against Islamic extremists.
Some 12,000 polling stations will open from 8 a.m. local time for the more than 5.3 million registered voters in the region. Voting booths are scheduled to stay open for 12 hours.
Preliminary results were expected within 24 hours of the vote. although there appears to be little doubt that the result will be an overwhelming "Yes."
"The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it," Barzani told a press conference in Irbil on September 24, urging all Kurds to vote "in peace."
UN, Western Concerns
The United Nations, the United States, and other Western powers have expressed concerns that the referendum could distract from the war against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) should it lead to unrest in disputed areas.
The referendum is also opposed by Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government in Baghdad as well as neighboring Turkey and Iran, which themselves have sizable Kurdish minorities.
Turkey's Foreign Ministry on September 25 said Ankara would take "all measures" under international law if the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum generates threats to Turkey's national security.
The ministry said it does not recognize the referendum and would view its outcome as null and void.
Ankara also accused Iraq's Kurdish regional government of threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the whole region.
In a televised address on September 24, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called the vote "unconstitutional and against civil peace."
Abadi said Baghdad would take the "necessary measures" to protect the unity of the country.
Abadi said the vote ''could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing [the Iraqis] to disastrous dangers that only God knows.''
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.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's office said he and Iranian President Hassan Rohani also discussed their concerns about the vote in a telephone conversation, saying the referendum would cause “chaos in the region.”
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country would "never ever tolerate any status change or any new formations on its southern borders" and that the KRG would "be primarily responsible for the probable developments after this referendum.''
Barzani said that he expects 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.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders have said the referendum will take place in the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdish semiautonomous region -- Dahuk, Irbil, and Sulaimaniya -- 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.
With reporting by AP, AFP, IRIB, and Reuters