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Overwhelming 92 percent 'yes' vote in Kurdish independence referendum

Official results show that 92.73 percent of voters backed Kurdish statehood. [Getty]

Date of publication: 27 September, 2017

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Iraqi Kurds announced an overwhelming 'yes' for independence on Wednesday following a referendum that has incensed Baghdad and sparked regional and international concern.

Iraqi Kurds announced an overwhelming "yes" for independence on Wednesday following a referendum that has incensed Baghdad and sparked regional and international concern.

Official results showed that 92.73 percent of voters backed statehood in Monday's non-binding referendum, with turnout estimated at 72.61 percent.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said the vote would not lead to an immediate declaration of independence but should instead open the door to negotiations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told parliament on Wednesday that there was no question of using the results as the basis for talks.

"The referendum must be annulled and dialogue initiated in the framework of the constitution. We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum," Abadi said.

"We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan under the constitution," he said.

Lawmakers on Wednesday passed a resolution calling on Abadi to "take all necessary measures to maintain Iraq's unity" including by deploying security forces to disputed areas, such as oil-rich Kirkuk.

The resolution also called for the closure of border posts with Turkey and Iran that are outside central government control.

Monday's vote took place across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan - Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk - and in disputed border zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Opponents have accused Barzani of seeking to empower himself through the vote, and said he should have accepted a UN-backed plan to postpone the referendum in favour of negotiations with Baghdad.

Regional threats

Pressure has been mounting on the Kurds since the vote was announced in June, not just from Baghdad but also from Turkey, who has threatened a range of measures such as cutting off key export routes for the region.

Turkey fears the vote will stoke the separatist ambitions of its own sizeable Kurdish minority and on Tuesday President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Iraq's Kurds risked sparking an "ethnic war".

"If Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war," he said.

The Kurds see themselves as the world's largest stateless people.

Erdogan had earlier warned that Turkey would shut its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to block oil exports from the region through Turkey.

Erdogan even suggested the possibility of a cross-border incursion similar to the one Turkey carried out against IS and Kurdish fighters in Syria.

On Wednesday, the head of Turkey's nationalist opposition Devlet Bahceli said thousands of Turkish volunteers are ready to fight in Kirkuk and other Iraqi cities to defend the country's Turkmen population, who have close ethnic ties to Turkey.

"The Turkmens are not unprotected and alone. They will never be abandoned to painful ethnic genocide and statelessness. Our decision is definite, our position is clear, our word is our bond,' Bahceli said, according to Reuters.

Punitive measures

Analysts say that despite their threats, Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran are proceeding cautiously in reacting to the vote, wary of sparking a serious confrontation with the Kurds that would further destabilise an already volatile region.

Closing their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan would also hurt Turkey, which exports more than $8 billion worth of goods every year to the region, and Iran, which exports about $6 billion.

International airlines on Wednesday, however, began suspending flights to and from Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, after Iraqi civil aviation authorities issued a ban on flights to Kurdistan following the region's independence referendum.

A day earlier, Iraq's Prime Minister threatened to enforce a flight shutdown on the Kurdish region if it did not surrender control of two international airports by Friday.

The transport minister for Iraq's Kurdish region on Wednesday rejected the Iraqi government's ultimatum to hand over Kurdistan's airports.

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 of between 25 and 35 million is spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

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