92% of Iraqi Kurds back independence from Baghdad, election commission says
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Iraqi Kurds have voted overwhelmingly for independence in a contentious referendum, the High Elections and Referendum Commission announced Wednesday, a vote that has angered the government in Baghdad and regional heavyweights Turkey and Iran.
Hendrin Mohammed, the head of the electoral commission, announced the official results at a press conference, saying the referendum passed with 92.73 percent support and turnout of more than 72 percent.
The vote is non-binding and will not immediately bring more independence to the already largely autonomous region. Nevertheless, it has raised fears of introducing further instability to Iraq and beyond.
For Baghdad, the vote threatens a redrawing of Iraq's borders, taking a sizeable part of the country's oil wealth with it. Turkish and Iranian leaders feared the move would embolden their own Kurdish populations, with neighbouring Turkey even threatening a military response.
The Iraqi Kurdish push for independence has been made even more combustible after Kurdish forces recaptured extensive territory from the Islamic State group in the past year. Those areas run from northwestern Iraq to the Iranian border on the east, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Baghdad claims those territories as its own, but the Kurds say they are part of their autonomous zone.
Iraq's Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the referendum earlier this month but the Kurds vowed to go ahead with the vote.
Speaking to lawmakers Wednesday before the results were announced, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said, "The referendum must be annulled and dialogue initiated within the framework of the constitution."
"We will never hold talks on the results of the referendum," he added.
In recent weeks Baghdad has really tried to “tighten its grip on Kurdistan”, said FRANCE 24’s Simona Foltyn, reporting from the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil.
In addition to demanding control over Kurdish borders – including the international airport in Erbil – by Friday, Abadi has demanded that Kurdish oil production once again be funneled through the federal government in Baghdad, reviving a dispute over oil rights that first erupted in 2014.
What remains to be seen is what will happen after the Friday deadline has passed, Foltyn said. “Will Baghdad really go [as far as deploying] troops, and risk perhaps igniting violence between the two sides?”
Lebanon's Middle East Airlines and EgyptAir have already said they will halt service to Erbil starting on Friday. In a statement, EgyptAir said flights would be suspended "until further notice".
The Kurdish region's president, Massoud Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi both spoke forcefully ahead of the start of voting on Monday.
Barzani told a news conference that he believed the vote would be peaceful but acknowledged that the path to independence would be "risky".
"We are ready to pay any price for our independence," he said.
Abadi has warned that the vote "opens the door to a new struggle" and "is a danger to the region".
"We will take measures to safeguard the nation's unity and protect all Iraqis," he warned in a televised address from Baghdad.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the US wouldn't alter its "historic relationship" with Iraqi Kurds but warned that the referendum would increase hardships for the Kurdish region of Iraq. She said the Islamic State group and other extremists are hoping to "exploit instability and discord".
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed regret that the vote was being held and said the contentious issues between Iraq's federal government and the Kurdish region should be resolved through dialogue instead of a new push for independence.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)