ERBIL, Iraq – There were celebrations across northern Iraq on Monday as people voted on Kurdish independence – paving the way for the creation of a new country, and the splintering of Iraq.
Monday’s vote was strongly opposed by the U.S., which had lobbied hard against it. U.S. officials said now was a time to focus on the battle against ISIS, in which the Kurds have played a major role.
But Kurdish Foreign Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir said the time was right.
“This is a moment when the people of Kurdistan go to the ballot boxes to exercise their very basic right,” he said, “the right to self-determination in order to determine their own future.”
The Kurdish president also called on the U.S. to support the move.
“I ask the American people to support us, because all we’ve done is democratically and peacefully asked for our rights and this requires the support of the American nation,” President Masoud Barzani told Fox News.
The vote — likely to be a resounding "yes" when official results are revealed later this week — is not binding and will not immediately bring independence to the autonomous region.
But the vote comes with great danger. Already neighboring countries are threatening a response.
Turkey and Iran have objected strongly, and have been massing their militaries on their borders in response, while the Iraqi central government has also threatened to send in troops.
"This is a division of Iraq," said journalist Raad Mohammad. Another Baghdad resident, Ali al-Rubayah, described the vote as a "black day in the history of the Kurds."
One of the flash points is expected to be in Kirkuk, the oil-rich region which Kurdish fighters took over in 2014 when the Iraqi army fled in the face of ISIS.
But for Kurds, today’s vote is about moving on from decades of oppression by the central government.
“Kurdistan has been a land of tolerance…Kurdistan has been an island of security and stability and has been open,” the foreign minister said. “Kurdistan has been open for people who have fled tyranny and oppression for other parts of Iraq who have come here.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.