Voters in areas of Iraq controlled by Kurdish forces turned out in high numbers to take part in a landmark independence referendum on Monday, defying pressure from Baghdad as well as threats from neighbours Turkey and Iran.
The vote in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq and some disputed areas is non-binding and will not lead automatically to independence, but is seen by the Kurds as a major step towards a long-cherished dream of statehood.
Voters flocked to the polls, eager to show off their ink-stained fingers after casting their ballots, and an overwhelming "Yes" outcome is expected.
Polling stations closed at 7:00 pm (GMT) after voting was extended for an hour.
Turnout among 5.2 million eligible voters was 78 percent, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said, and vote-counting had started. Results were expected by late Tuesday or Wednesday.
The vote took place peacefully and in a festive atmosphere, but signs of potential trouble mounted as the day progressed.
Kurds hail 'historic' chance to vote for independence
In Baghdad, where the referendum has been declared unconstitutional, lawmakers demanded the government send troops to disputed areas where the vote was taking place.
In Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Turkey -- which fears the effects of the vote on its own sizeable Kurdish population -- would shut its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to block key exports.
And in Kirkuk, a disputed city where the vote controversially went ahead, security forces deployed on the streets after a curfew was imposed in parts of the city.
'Day of celebration'
Polling stations were scattered across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan -- Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk -- as well as in disputed border zones, with more than 5.3 million people registered to vote.
Soon after voting began in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, many men headed to polling stations dressed in traditional Kurdish dress of brown shirt and billowing trousers for the occasion.
"I came very early to be the first to vote for a Kurdish state," said Diyar Abubakr, 33.
"It's a day of celebration today. That's why I've put on our traditional outfit, which I bought for the occasion."
One voter even brought a cow to slaughter before the start of the referendum.
"I brought this cow as today the state is born and it's tradition to slaughter a cow for a birth," said Dalgash Abdallah, 27.
Erdogan threatens to 'turn off tap' on Kurdish oil
Veteran Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani, who initiated the vote, cast his ballot early in the morning, smiling and wearing a traditional outfit.
He pushed ahead with the referendum despite the opposition from Baghdad and Ankara, as well as from Iran, which has its own large Kurdish population.
Western countries have also warned against holding the vote, fearing it could hamper the fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, in which cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurds has been key.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Sunday pledged to take all the "necessary measures" to protect the country's unity, as his government urged all countries to deal only with it on oil transactions.
The Iraqi Kurds export an average 600,000 barrels per day through a pipeline running through Turkey to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.
Erdogan on Monday threatened to halt these oil exports, angrily denouncing an "illegitimate" referendum.
Erdogan also said Turkey's Habur border crossing with Iraqi Kurdistan would be closed.
He again urged Iraqi Kurdish authorities to take a step back and appeared to threaten a possible cross-border operation.
"In Iraq, when necessary, we will not shy away from taking these types of steps," Erdogan said, referring to Turkey's military operation launched last year in Syria against IS and Syrian Kurdish militia.
Tehran has also increased pressure, announcing on Sunday it had blocked all flights to and from the region at Baghdad's request.
The foreign ministry in Tehran said its land border with Iraqi Kurdistan remained opened however, reversing an earlier statement.
Left without a state of their own when the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, the Kurds see themselves as the world's largest stateless people.
The non-Arab ethnic group number between 25 and 35 million people spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
Date created : 2017-09-25