People across the Kurdistan region of Iraq voted Monday in a historic referendum seeking independence, despite opposition from several neighboring countries.
In the final tally almost 93% of eligible voters cast a 'yes' vote with close to 73 percent of eligible voters weighing in on the referendum, the head of the Ministry of Peshmerga in Kurdistan’s Regional Government told The Foreign Desk
Before any official announcement, Tuesday evening brought open celebrations to the streets of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
Many experts, however, predict that a definitive ‘yes’ vote will only serve as a symbolic outcome and not drastically change the political fate of the Kurdish people.
“The practical reality is Iraq is leaving Kurdistan, not the other way around,” said Ernie Audino, Brigadier General U.S. Army (Ret), who now serves as a senior military fellow at the London Center for Policy Research.
“The referendum is really a function of the fiction of a unified Iraq, which has become functionally annexed by Iran, yet many in Washington articulate a fantasy that a unified Iraq is the best counterbalance to Iran. No, a unified Iraq IS Iran,” General Audino said to The Foreign Desk.
Audino served a full year in Iraq as a combat advisor embedded with Kurdish Peshmerga Forces.
“Regaining a balance means checking Iranian power, not accommodating it. Kurdistan remains the last piece of terrain open and welcome to the establishment of a Western counterbalance to Iranian territorial ambitions.”
The Kurdistan region of Iraq is home to some six million Kurds, who in turn make up almost 20 percent of Iraq’s population. Many Kurds also live in Baghdad and in contested territory that the Iraqi government also claims.
In all, approximately 30 million Kurds live across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, making them the fourth largest ethnic group behind Arabs, Persians and Turks and the largest ethnic minority in one geographical area who remain without a state.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, British forces occupied the Ottoman province of Mosul, controlling large areas of what is now the Kurdistan region of Iraq. After the Treaty of Sevres was signed in 1920, the Kurds had their best hope for an autonomous state, only for the treaty to fall victim to decades of political ramblings and military flare ups.
Following the First Gulf War, Iraqi Kurds achieved semi-autonomy, establishing a regional government in Kurdistan.
But after years of repression by successive Iraqi governments, which also resulted in the deaths of thousands of Kurds at the hands of Saddam Hussein, many Kurds have felt the only way to escape the feeling of ‘second-class citizenship,’ is to attain independence.
The vote has been sharply criticized by neighboring countries including Iran, Iraq and Turkey, with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even threatening military action and economic sanctions in response to the vote.
“Let’s see where the regional government will flow its oil, through which channels and where it will sell it,” President Erdogan said in Istanbul Monday, making reference to Turkey buying Kurdistan’s oil.
President Erdogan also called on Kurdistan’s Regional President Masoud Barzani to "give up on this adventure.”
President Barzani said he would not be intimidated.
“Nothing will be as harmful as the Anfal genocide campaigns and chemical attacks” President Barzani said, making a reference to the Kurdish genocide committed during the latter stages of the Iran-Iraq war, where the Ba’athist regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein killed tens of thousands of Kurds.
Meanwhile in Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi denounced the referendum and ruled out any talk of secession. He also threatened a flight ban if Kurdish authorities failed to hand over control of regional airports to Iraqi authorities.
"We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional," he said.
The U.S. expressed dismay at the vote Monday and had called for postponement of the vote, warning that the outcome could lead to increased instability in the region.
“The United States is deeply disappointed that the Kurdistan Regional Government decided to conduct today a unilateral referendum on independence, including in areas outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
The U.S. has politically and militarily allied itself with the Kurds, who are seen by many as the most legitimate and capable ground force in the regional fight against the Islamic State.
Regionally, the Kurds have received unequivocal support for independence from neighboring Israel, with Prime Minister Netanyahu stating recently that he backs the “legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve a state of their own.”
However, according to one Israeli official, the Israeli premier has forbidden government officials from commenting publicly on the referendum.