Iraqi Kurds were casting ballots on Monday in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories on whether to support independence from Baghdad in a historic but non-binding vote that has raised regional tensions and fears of instability.
More than 3 million people are expected to vote across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories — areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk — according to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, the body overseeing the vote.
Lines began forming early in the day at polling stations across Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Tahsin Karim was one of the first people to vote in his Irbil neighborhood.
“Today we came here to vote in the referendum for the independence of Kurdistan,” he said. “We hope that we can achieve independence.”
The Kurdish region’s president, Masoud Barzani, also voted early on Monday morning at a polling station packed with journalists and cameras. At a press conference in Irbil on the eve of the referendum, Barzani said he believed the vote would be peaceful, though he acknowledged that the path to independence would be “risky.”
“We are ready to pay any price for our independence,” he said.
The referendum is being carried out despite mounting opposition from Baghdad and the international community.
The United States, a key ally of Iraq’s Kurds, has warned the vote will likely destabilize the region amid the fight with the Islamic State group. The Iraqi central government has also come out strongly against the referendum, demanding on Sunday that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control.
In a televised address from Baghdad on Sunday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said that “the referendum is unconstitutional. It threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence among Iraqis and is a danger to the region.”