Since the early hours of the day people have flooded polling stations. Mosques and churches have joined in the festive atmosphere with muezzins' calls and bells pealing. Kurdistan is a country of tolerance and coexistence. But Turkmen fear and Turkey voices threats. The Israeli lobby backs the referendum opposed by Iraq’s Arabs and Shias.
Enishke (AsiaNews) – Despite all the objections of the central government, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan kicked off its independence referendum in the early hours of the day. This is a challenge not only for Iraq, but also for Turkey and Iran. The latter has closed its airspace yesterday to all flights to and from Erbil and Suleymaniah. Turkey is preparing to do the same, whilst Baghdad has asked the Kurds to hand over border crossings, including airports, to Iraqi authorities.
Polling stations will remain open from 8 am to 5 pm, with the possibility of a two-hour extension. Since early morning, they have been literally flooded by seniors accompanied by their grandchildren and people of all ages going through separate entrances for men and women, amid tight security. The process was organised by the High Commission for Elections and the Referendum. Upon leaving, voters happily show their inked finger as proof of having cast their ballot.
"Yes, yes, to independence, everyone must say yes, so that all our martyrs can rest in peace," said 70-year-old Derbas Musa Ali to AsiaNews, who for 35 years fought on the mountains of Kurdistan. "This is Peshmerga country," he said noting that "we do not fear Turkey, neither Iran nor Iraq. We will deal with all of them as we have always done when they attacked us."
Mohammad Hassan was also among the first to vote yes. "We are relaxed, actually confident that a new era is dawning in a country of tolerance and coexistence. Voting has united the Kurdish people and we all welcome everyone."
Mohammad Ali Nadir voted because "he was wounded three times. We cannot live with Iraqis. Since Saddam's time little has changed, only the faces, but the hate for the Kurds has survived. The Iraqi government cut pensions by half; they want to starve us." When asked whether the halved pensions will be completely eliminated after the referendum, he replied: "We will eat roots and grass, but we will not go back." Young people are reluctant to talk to the press, but smile and raise their inked finger.
Everybody is dressed up in their best clothes, colourful ones, traditional costumes, fancy outfits for a day they consider historic. The autonomous Kurdistan Region has asked all places of worship to participate in the festive mood and from the early hours of the morning muezzins have been calling on the faithful to pray, whilst church bells peal.
Many hope that this day will mark the beginning of a new era of peace and serenity, but dark signs can be glimpsed on the horizon. Rival nations like Iraq, Turkey and Iran are joining again and this does not bode well for the future. Those who voted gather in cafes, smoke and drink tea, all the talk revolving around the present history, the heroic past, but also and especially the uncertain future.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has said it will not accept the results of the referendum, which it considers "null and void". Turkey plans to do the same. Ankara called on all its citizens in Kurdistan to leave the country as soon as possible, except in urgent cases.
Overnight, eyewitnesses said they saw thousands of Peshmerga leave Erbil towards Kirkuk, where Turkmen, supported by Turkey, have called for a boycott of the vote and appealed to the "international community" for help. According to local analysts, the Kirkuk “Turkish” community could start clashes with the Kurds to provide Turkey with an alibi for military intervention to rescue their "ethnic brethren persecuted by the Kurds."
For its part, Iraq has not concealed plans to use the military option, one shared by most paramilitary militias like Al Hashd el Shaabi. In Mosul, Arab tribes claimed to be ready for a long civil war against the Kurds to prevent them from "realising the foreign agenda aimed at the division of Iraq". They accuse the Kurds of wanting to create an ethno-racial state and of being "traitors in collusion with the enemy" because of the appearance of Israeli flags in the campaign in various Kurdistan cities, something harshly criticised by Iraqi Arabs.
Indeed, Israel's name has come back up again in the past few days. A week ago, Vice President Al Maliki clearly expressed his "refusal to see a second Israel emerge in northern Iraq," whilst all Kurds interviewed speak openly about the support of Israel and the Jewish lobby in the United States for Kurdistan’s independence.