IRBIL, Iraq – Iraq's Kurds vote this month on whether or not they support independence for their enclave in the country's north, a step toward their long-held dream of statehood. The outcome, almost certain to be "yes," will further rattle a region still engulfed in the fight against the Islamic State group.
A "yes" vote won't mean immediate independence for the Kurdish region since the referendum does not have legal force. But Kurdish officials say they will use it to pressure the Iraqi government in Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and formalize their independence bid.
Already the Sept. 25 vote is fueling tensions. Baghdad and Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Turkey, which worry it will encourage their own sizeable Kurdish populations, have all demanded it be called off. Iraq's prime minister has called the referendum unconstitutional and warned of potential violence in territory claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad. The United States, the Kurds' top ally, has tried to persuade them to postpone the vote, fearing it will open a new chapter of instability even as U.S.-backed forces try to recapture the last remaining IS-held pockets in Iraq.
The results could mark an important, historic shift. Since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, the Kurdish government has held off on dreams of statehood, saying it would try working within a united Iraq, albeit with a large degree of autonomy. A vote for independence would proclaim their determination to go it alone.
If they eventually do break away, it would be the most significant redrawing of borders in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948. It will split Iraq, tearing away a Switzerland-sized chunk, including key oil resources, and leaving the remainder with an Arab population split between a Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority. The Kurdish self-rule zone officially makes up about 10 percent of Iraq's territory, with a population of about 3 million, around 8 percent of Iraq's total 37 million.
Further adding to the explosive mix, the Kurds have expanded control beyond their enclave's formal borders, increasing its size by more than half. In fighting with IS, they seized parts of northern Nineveh province and the oil-rich central region Kirkuk, territory claimed by the Baghdad government.
The Kurds say they intend to keep those areas. Some will likely be bargaining chips in negotiations on independence — but they could also become flashpoints for violence.
In a recent sermon, the leader of a powerful Shiite militia warned that his forces were ready to fight for those territories, saying they would be considered Iraqi land occupied by Kurds if independence goes through.
"We have experience in dealing with occupation forces," Sheikh Qais al-Khazali told worshippers, referring to the fight his Asaib Ahl al-Haq group previously waged against U.S. troops in Iraq.
There are brakes on the Kurds' independence drive. The Kurdish region is wrestling with an economic crisis deepened by reduced oil revenues, and its government is mired in divisions. Many Kurds are hesitant to break away without ensuring international support or recognition. The referendum in part may aim to show the United States, Baghdad, Turkey and Iran that they have to find a peaceful way toward a Kurdish state.
Large-scale violence following the vote is unlikely, though there could be small-scale friction in disputed areas, said Kirk Sowell, publisher of the newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. The regional reaction will also likely be muted because the referendum won't immediately change anything, he said.
Still, Iraq's Kurds are stockpiling goods in case Turkey or Iran close borders in retaliation for the vote.
Large Kurdish populations in Turkey and Iran are pressing for greater rights — with fringes demanding outright autonomy. Turkey has battled Kurdish rebels, and unrest has been common in Iran's northwestern Kurdish region. Hiking Turkish and Iranian concerns, Syria's Kurds are moving aggressively toward their own self-rule after carving out territory across northern Syria in that country's war.
Iran described the Iraqi Kurds' referendum as "dangerous and provocative."
"If Iraq's division begins, it will spill over to Syria and Turkey and a war of separatism will begin which may make the region insecure for 20 years," said Mohsen Rezaei, the secretary of Iran's Expediency Council, a senior government body.
Also wary of the vote are non-Kurdish minorities in the Kurds' newly captured territories.
In Kirkuk, local lawmakers voted last month in favor of participating in the referendum. But 14 lawmakers from local minorities — Turkmens and Arabs — boycotted, so it was the provincial parliament's Kurdish members who pushed through the measure.
Despite the pressure, the Kurds are determined to hold the vote.
Denied their own state after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they have long pushed for independence. They were brutally oppressed under Saddam, whose military in the 1980s killed at least 50,000 Kurds, many with chemical weapons.
The self-rule Kurdistan Regional Government with its capital in Irbil was established in 1992 after the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone across the north following the Gulf War. After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam, the autonomous region secured constitutional recognition.
"I hope the referendum will succeed. We have been in the same circle with the Arabs for 50 years. We cannot trust them," said Saber Salim, an old man sitting outside Irbil's citadel. He said his family was driven out of Kirkuk during the Saddam era and his brother was killed in clashes with Saddam's forces in the 1980s.
Ali Awni, a leading member of the ruling Kurdish party KDP, said this is "the perfect time to declare independence."
"Turkey has internal political problems, the Iranians are fighting on different fronts, Iraq is in a miserable state ... and Syria is dead," he said.
But some Kurds who oppose the referendum believe the autonomous region's president, Masoud Barzani, is trying to distract from failures and entrench his own position. The Kurdish parliament was suspended in 2015 and Barzani has remained in office beyond his term, with oil prices harming his government's ability to pay salaries amid charges that security forces are intimidating referendum opponents.
"By rejecting the referendum, we want to say no to the elite who have ruled the region for 26 years," said lawmaker Raboun Maarouf, who heads the anti-referendum campaign. But he says he is not opposed to independence in principle.
Kardo Abdulkhaleq, an Irbil shopkeeper, said the divisive mood makes him fear a repeat of heavy fighting that erupted between Kurdish parties in the mid-1990s.
"My concern is that we'd end up like South Sudan or other places that got their independence and then fell into civil war."
Salaheddin reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai contributed to this report.