ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurds are expected to vote for independence in a referendum on Monday that neighboring countries and Western powers fear could break up the country and stir broader regional ethnic and sectarian conflict.
Kurdish flags - a red, white and green tricolor emblazoned with a golden sun - adorn cars and buildings across the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, and billboards announce: “The time is now - say ‘yes’ to a free Kurdistan!”
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region since 2005, has resisted calls by the United Nations, the United States and Britain to delay the referendum. Neighboring Turkey is holding army exercises on the Iraqi border to underline its concerns that the referendum could fuel separatism among its own Kurds.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on live television on Friday the vote posed a threat to Turkey’s national security and that Ankara would “do what is necessary” to protect itself. He did not elaborate.
But Hoshyar Zebari, a senior advisor to Barzani, struck a defiant tone, telling 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 for negotiations with Baghdad without also securing guarantees that it could then be held on a binding basis would amount to ”political suicide for the Kurdish leadership and the Kurdish dream of independence.
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.
Tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and Baghdad hinge on oil revenue the Kurds see as the mainstay of a future Kurdish state. The Kurds have long accused Baghdad of withholding budget payments to the region, while Baghdad has opposed oil deals made by the Kurds without its consent.
A regional conflict could threaten oil supply from Kurdish and northern Iraqi fields to world markets, carried through a pipeline to Turkey.
Already at least one Kurd has been killed in pre-referendum clashes in Kirkuk, and security checkpoints have been erected across the city to prevent further violence.
The Baghdad government, Iraq’s neighbors and Western powers fear the vote could break up a country that has seen devastating sectarian and ethnic conflict since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein.
“For independence we must pay any price needed because we prefer freedom over subordination or oppression,” Barzani told a rally on Friday in Erbil, adding that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters had earned the right to self-determination by battling Islamic State.
“They praise Peshmerga sacrifices but don’t let Peshmerga and our martyrs’ families decide their destiny,” he said as tens of thousands cheered and waved Kurdish flags.
“We reaffirm to the UN Security Council that our fight against terror will continue,” he said, dismissing concerns that
the vote would undermine the drive - which requires cooperation with Arabs - to crush Islamic State militants.
The militants have now been driven from their northern Iraqi stronghold of Mosul but are still dug in near Kirkuk and are also operating across the border in Syria.
Any conflict around Kurdish northern Iraq could have ramifications across the Middle East, not least in Syria, Turkey and Iran. Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran agreed on Thursday to consider counter-measures against the Kurdish plans.
Turkey, which has developed close commercial and political ties with the region, especially in the area of energy, has also threatened to impose sanctions.
Condemning the vote as “provocative and destabilizing”, the United States has urged renewed negotiations. This followed a week of escalating rhetoric between Kurdish leaders and Baghdad, where the parliament voted to reject the referendum.
Though the general mood seems in favor of independence, many, especially non-Kurds, told Reuters they questioned the wisdom of holding a referendum now.
“We have always lived peacefully and don’t want problems,” said Karima Attiyah, an elderly Arab woman who has spent her whole life in Kirkuk. “I don’t support the referendum.”
Barzani has been a powerful force for more than two decades where the north has been spared the turmoil that has affected much of the rest of Iraq.
Older generations of Iraq’s Kurds suffered during Saddam Hussein’s 1980s Anfal campaign, and want to see their struggle for national independence come to fruition.
“(Our fathers and mothers) think it’s a betrayal not to vote ‘yes’,” said Muhammed, a researcher from Sulaimaniyah who is in his 30s. “Their sons and relatives were killed by the Baghdad government in the past and they think the referendum is one way to [take] revenge.”
More than 5.2 million people are registered to vote. The first electronic ballot for Kurds living abroad was cast overseas in China, according to the Kurdistan High Elections and Referendum Commission, which is administering the vote.
Reporting by Raya Jalabi and Ulf Laessing. Writing by Raya Jalabi; editing by Ralph Boulton and Gareth Jones