Over 90 percent of the three million voters in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq voted on Monday to secede from Iraq and establish an independent Kurdistan, in an election widely heralded as free and fair.
This number was published at the Kurdish outlet Rudaw, which conducted exit polling Monday. The KRG will announce official results later in the week.
The governments of nations with significant secessionist Kurdish populations, most notably Turkey and Iran, have condemned the vote. The American Department of State claimed to be “deeply disappointed” in the vote despite its strong relationship with the KRG government in Erbil and the decades of mismanagement and corruption plaguing the Iran-backed government in Baghdad.
The Kurdish outlet Rudaw reported that 93.29 percent of respondents asked voted “yes” to establishing a Kurdish state with its capital in Erbil, while 6.71 percent voted no. A little over 72 percent of eligible voters—3,305,925 people—cast ballots, the publication reported.
Local news sources reported no major violent incidents and international observers praised the election as free and fair. “In the areas we observed, there were sufficient polling stations, and things were orderly,” former Croatian deputy prime minister Vesna Pusic, who was in the KRG as an observer, said following the event, according to Kurdistan24. “There was no coercion—either preventing or forcing people to vote.”
Before results surfaced late Monday, KRG president Masoud Barzani delivered a speech declaring that Iraq and Kurdistan would now be “neighbors,” and that Erbil would not “disregard the decision of those people” who voted for independence. “No, there is no alternative. The only exception is if they make the road shorter, they come two days from now and say that ‘you don’t need two years. Let’s reach an agreement within two months, and become good neighbours,’” Barzani suggested, calling Iraq and Kurdistan a “failed partnership.”
The Iraqi government ordered the suspension of the vote last week—which the KRG ignored—and decreed the event unconstitutional. Baghdad has received support from the United Nations and countries like Iran, Turkey, and the United States. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres asserted Monday that the group “respects the sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Iraq” and urged unspecified “dialogue.” Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the vote “a betrayal to Turkey” and his government has refused to accept representatives from Erbil in the country. The Iranian government suspended flights to Erbil and one official accused the KRG of posing “serious challenges for the region by holding the vote.”
While the KRG has never had close ties to Iran, it has maintained a friendly relationship with Turkey, even at the expense of ties to Syria’s Kurdish leadership. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani responded to Erdogan by asserting that “we are not and will not threaten Turkey’s national security, and neither will we intervene in the Turkish affairs, not today, and neither in the future. We want to be a good neighbor.”
Barzani stated that he had repeatedly attempted to schedule a visit to Turkey but Ankara had denied him entry.
Rex Tillerson’s State Department appeared to agree with Iran and Turkey. “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,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement. “The unilateral referendum will greatly complicate the Kurdistan Regional Government’s relationship with both the Government of Iraq and neighboring states. … The United States supports a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”
Not all American foreign policy figures agree. In an interview with Kurdistan24, former ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton asserted that he “strongly supported” the referendum. “I think it’s time for the Kurdish people in Iraq to give a voice to their aspirations,” he said.