(AFP) — WASHINGTON — The United States warned that an independence referendum Monday for Iraqi Kurdistan to break away from Baghdad will “increase instability.”
The vote heightened tensions with Iraq’s national government and neighboring countries. While an overwhelming “Yes” outcome is expected, the vote is non-binding and Kurdish officials have said there are no plans for an immediate declaration of independence.
“The United States is deeply disappointed that the Kurdistan Regional Government decided to conduct today a unilateral referendum on independence, including in areas outside of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement.
Polls closed just after 7 p.m. in the Kurdish region of Iraq, with some 72 percent of 4.5 million eligible voters casting ballots, according to the Kurdish Rudaw news website. With just under 300,000 votes counted, 93.4% of Kurds backed independence, according to a tally published by the site.
“The United States’ historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change in light of today’s non-binding referendum, but we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people,” Nauert added.
Lawmakers in Baghdad demanded that troops be sent to disputed areas where the referendum was taking place, and a night curfew was imposed in parts of the disputed city of Kirkuk.
Iran and Turkey, which both worry the vote will stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities, also increased pressure on Iraq’s Kurds, with Ankara saying Monday it would shut its border and threatening to block key oil exports.
“The fight against ISIS is not over, and extremist groups are seeking to exploit instability and discord,” Nauert said, referring to the Islamic State group.
The Iraqi Kurdish push for independence has been made even more combustible because Kurdish forces captured extensive territory in fighting against 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, but the Kurds say they are part of their zone and some residents there are participating in the referendum.
“We believe all sides should engage constructively in a dialogue to improve the future of all Iraqis. The United States opposes violence and unilateral moves by any party to alter boundaries,” Nauert said. “The United States supports a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq and will continue to seek opportunities to assist Iraqis to fulfill their aspirations within the framework of the constitution.”