ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi Kurds are expected to vote on Monday to back an independence drive that neighboring countries and Western powers fear could break up the country and stir broader regional ethnic and sectarian conflict.
Kurdish red-white-green tricolors set with a blazing golden sun adorn cars and buildings throughout the semi-autonomous northern Kurdistan region. Billboards exhort “the time is now – say ‘yes’ to a free Kurdistan!”
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region since 2005, has resisted efforts by the United Nations, the United States and Britain to delay the referendum. Neighboring Turkey is holding army border exercises to underline its concerns Iraqi Kurdish separatism could feed insurrection on its soil.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on live television on Friday the vote posed a threat to national security and Ankara “will do what is necessary” to protect itself. He did not elaborate.
But Hoshyar Zebari, a senior advisor to Barzani, told Reuters: “This is the last five meters of the final sprint and we will be standing our ground.”
Many Kurds see the vote, though non-binding, as a historic opportunity to achieve self-determination a century after Britain and France divided the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot agreement. That arrangement left 30 million Kurds scattered over Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
Zebari said delaying the vote without guarantees it could be held on a binding basis after negotiations with Baghdad would be ”political suicide for the Kurdish leadership and the Kurdish dream of independence.
“An opportunity my generation won’t see again”.
The referendum raises most risk of ethnic conflict in the oil city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the recognized boundaries of the Kurdish region and is claimed by Baghdad. Its population includes Arabs and Turkmen but it is dominated by Kurds.
Turkey has long claimed a special responsibility in protecting ethnic Turkmen. Some of Iraq’s Turkmen are Shi‘ite and affiliated to political parties close to Iran.
‘‘We expect those who are against the referendum to cause trouble but we are determined not to engage in any kind of violence, we don’t want to give them any excuse to intervene or to question the validity of the vote,’’ Zebari said.