Last week, we blogged about today’s Kuridsh Independence referendum.  Yesterday’s Kurdish independence rally attracted an enormous crowd, perhaps foreshadowing nearly 80% of the reported 3.9 million registered voters turning out at the polls today.

Jubilant Kurds described today as “the best day of their life” and some even took to flying the Brazilian flag because there were no Kurdish ones left.

The Guardian reports:

Thousands of people in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq have cast votes in a referendum billed as a first step towards independence from Baghdad, defying regional demands that the ballot be abandoned and international fears that the outcome could spark violence.

As voting stations closed, more than 80% of registered voters had cast ballots in a poll that many felt went beyond the demands of Iraq’s Kurdish north to buttress the cause of Kurds across the region.

. . . .  In Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic oil city 60 miles south of Erbil, Kurdish areas were brimming with voters, many wearing celebratory clothes or traditional costume. “This is better than [the Islamic festivals],” said Abdul Kareem Kakarash, 62, a blacksmith. “It is the best day of my life.”

His relative Mala Rasul Mamish, 40, said: “I hope that the west will see this as a historic day, and not just the project of one political party. It is much more than that. So much of our blood has been spilled for being Kurds. The Iraqi government has done to us things that even infidels wouldn’t do.”

The ballot is widely expected to deliver an overwhelming yes for independence – a boost for the de facto Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, who had invested much of his political capital as leader in putting Iraq’s Kurds on a pathway to independence.

While Kurds turned out in record numbers, their Arab neighbors, some fearful of retribution, chose not to vote.

The Guardian continues:

In the city itself, Hasiba Abdullah, 51, who supervised a polling station in a Kurdish neighbourhood, said of the vote: “It’s a dream come true for everyone. We want the Kurdish flag to rise over all our communities here. They will all be included. We are ready to set aside all disputes and take our east in the global community. We want to see our flag at the United Nations.”

Across Kirkuk, in an Arab suburb, Abu Ahmed, 61, an oil worker who did not vote, said: “Some people are not going to vote. There is more interest for the Kurds to vote. It’s less likely in the Turkmen and Arab areas.”

In a nearby polling station, Amid Najmedin said about 10% of registered voters had turned up by noon. “Arabs are not coming to vote,” he said. “The Iraqi government has been threatening people. Because of their pressure, others do not feel comfortable to participate.”

Watch the report:

Iraq’s neighbors are not happy with the vote, and neither, reportedly, is the U. S. or the UK.

The New York Times reports:

Kurds across northern Iraq lined up Monday morning to vote in a referendum on whether to seek independence for an autonomous Kurdish region that has yearned for nationhood for more than a century.

Despite withering criticism from the Iraqi government and the United States, voters marked simple paper ballots with boxes offering a “yes” or “no” choice on whether to embark on a path toward an independent Kurdistan.

Some Iraqi Kurds were in a defiant mood, reflecting the region’s determination to withstand resistance from the international community, which fears the vote will unleash ethnic conflict and further destabilize Iraq. The Kurds’ two much larger neighbors, Turkey and Iran, have threatened to close borders and impose other sanctions.

A convincing “yes” vote, which is expected, would not lead to independence anytime soon. But Kurdish leaders believe a broad public mandate would provide leverage in any negotiations with Iraq on the Kurdish region’s push toward independence.

Even as Kurds flashed ink-stained forefingers certifying they had voted, the referendum was fraught with risks that could further isolate and marginalize the landlocked enclave.

The New York Times continues:

The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said Sunday night that Iraq would “take the necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country.”

The Iraqi government, which considers the vote illegal, demanded that the Kurdish government surrender control of its international border posts and give up revenue from its oil exports to Turkey, the region’s single biggest source of income.

At Iraq’s request, Tehran halted flights on Sunday between Iran and the two international airports inside Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds now worry that Baghdad will close airspace over the region.

. . . . Turkey and Iran, who fear the vote will foment unrest among their own Kurdish minorities, are conducting military exercises on their borders with Iraq near Kurdistan.

. . . . The United States had pressured Kurdish leaders to cancel the vote, warning that it could it could set off ethnic conflict, fracture Iraq and undermine the American-led coalition against Islamic State militants. The White House called the referendum “provocative and destabilizing,” and the American envoy to the region said it had no prospects for international legitimacy.

Despite stating its opposition, the United States has significant military and intelligence assets in Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds are counting on relations with the United States continuing as usual once the referendum is completed and the rhetoric becomes less heated.

Iran has reportedly closed its border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Independent reports:

Iran has closed its border with the Kurdish region of Iraq at the request of Baghdad, a statement from the Iranian foreign ministry has said. Land crossings into Iran were shut to Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday, as Iraq’s 8.4 million Kurds lined up at polling stations to vote in a referendum on creating an independent state.

The decision follows the closure of both Iranian and Turkish airspace to Iraq on Sunday.

The Kurds hope that the result of the nonbinding vote will lead to Kurdish independence, while neighboring countries fear their success could lead to similar calls for independence from their Kurdish populations.

Fox News reports:

Kurdish officials say a “yes” vote will send a message Baghdad cannot ignore, paving the way for negotiations aimed at a peaceful exit. But Iraqi government officials maintain just the opposite, that the referendum will push the two sides further apart and make it even more difficult to resolve longstanding disputes.

The regional government has long been at odds with Baghdad over disputed territories like the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which are controlled by Kurdish forces but outside their autonomous zone. They have also argued over the sharing of oil revenues, with the Kurds exporting through a Turkish pipeline over objections from Baghdad.

The conflict has been largely peaceful until now, but in recent days both sides have threatened to use military force to protect their interests. In Kirkuk, the epicenter of the territorial dispute, the governor imposed a nighttime curfew after the vote.

Both Turkey and Iran condemned the vote, fearing it would inspire their own sizable Kurdish minorities, and both have carried out military drills this week on the borders of Iraq’s Kurdish region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that Kurdish independence was unacceptable, and a “matter of survival” for his country. Pointing to the military drills along the border, he said “we could arrive suddenly one night.”

Turkey has several ways of pressuring the Kurds short of military intervention. Much of the Kurdish region’s oil exports flow through a Turkish pipeline, and Turkey is the region’s main trading partner.

While official results of today’s vote are not expected until later in the week, preliminary counts indicate overwhelming support for independence.

RadioFreeEurope reports:

Officials in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq have begun counting votes in an independence referendum that the United Nations, the United States, and other Western powers warn could stoke new tensions throughout the entire region.

Preliminary results were expected as early as September 26, and final results by September 28, the agency supervising the vote said. Still, there appeared to be little doubt there would be an overwhelming “yes” . . . .

As of this writing, the Kurdish Rudaw news site’s live results page shows 282,017 votes counted, with 93.29% voting “yes.”