ERBIL, Iraq — The streets in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government, were eerily quiet in the morning as voting began for the referendum. The night before, young men had been in the streets, honking horns and waving flags from cars in preparation for the big day. Fireworks were shot off in some neighborhoods.
On Iskan street, the pulse of the city seemed like it would stretch towards the morning. The smell of grilled meat wandered through the air. A teenager in one SUV waved an Israeli flag, which has become common in the Kurdish region at rallies, as Israel is the only country to openly support Kurdish independence aspirations.
Many shops were closed on the morning of the referendum for what was a day off in the region. At the Rotana hotel, Kurdish politicians and VIPs voted while press looked on. Bernard Henri Levy had flown in with an international team of observers. He greeted friends he had made during previous stays in the region. Members of one of the small Islamic parties of Kurdistan, voted, holding up their fingers with the black ink used to mark the referendum cards. Many men and women came in festive traditional Kurdish attire.
Turnout was 76 percent an hour before voting closed, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station reported.
The vote organized by Kurdish authorities is expected to deliver a comfortable "yes" for independence, but is not binding. But it is designed to give Masoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a mandate to negotiate the secession of the oil-producing region.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani reiterated words heard the day before from the president at a press conference. Aware of the threats from Baghdad and Turkey condemning the vote, he sought to allay concerns of Kurdistan’s neighbors.
“There are no need for for threats, we have a common enemy [in Islamic State],” Barzani said.
He hoped the threats would not translate into reality “because everyone will lose.”
Nevertheless, the prime minister asserted that Kurds would stand strong in the face of condemnations.
“Putting embargo on people will not weaken our people,” he said.
He also hoped Baghdad and Erbil could have a dialogue after the vote.
“We did referendum to enable people to express will, the next stage is not war or violence, let’s come and talk, when they are ready, we are ready to fly to Baghdad to talk to them.”
Walking back from the press conference at the Rotana hotel, taxi drivers waved their hands showing they had voted. In Ainkawa, a mostly Christian area of Erbil, lines stretched around the block as people came carrying their documents. Whatever the threats from Turkey and Baghdad, thousands were already turning out to express their hope for the future and independence.
Tamr Hussein, a teacher in Erbil, was born in Syria. Growing up, like many Kurds in Syria, he lacked citizenship and faced discrimination from the regime. Now living in Erbil and watching Kurds vote, he hoped to see an independent Kurdish state emerge soon, he said.
“We see that there is a lot of persecution from the region and it is our time,” Hussein said.
As a Syrian Kurd, he cannot vote in the election in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
“Kurds can support this even if we cannot vote, we support it in rallies and festivals for referendum, we take a part.”
Many people, from the prime minister and president of the region, to people sipping tea next to the iconic Erbil citadel, had the same message for the world’s powers: They want to express their right to vote for their future and do not fear threats from neighbors or from Baghdad.
But the threats are palpable. Turkey halted the broadcast of the local channel Rudaw, and has threatened to shut off the oil pipeline and close the border. This would be a huge financial blow to a region that exports hundreds of thousands of barrels a day via Turkey. Much of the Kurdish region’s economy is tied to Turkey as well, with long lines of trucks clogging the border crossing at Zakho.
But many Kurds say Turkey has just as much to lose by shutting the border at Erbil, because the Kurds import a lot of Turkish products.
Iran announced a ban on direct flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday, while Baghdad asked foreign countries to stop direct oil trading with the Kurdish region and demanded that the KRG hands over control of its international airports and border posts with Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, said Iran regarded the referendum as "treason" against the Iraqi Kurds.
There are more vows for sanctions as well, as rumors about Baghdad trying to shut the airports in the Kurdish region have swirled around.
But older people here remember the years of privation under Saddam Hussein, genocide and wars. Today that seems far off and people think whatever kinds of hardships might be imposed will be temporary. Even the danger of clashes with the Iranian-backed Shia militias that dominate parts of Iraq outside the Kurdish area do not phase locals. The Kurdish Peshmerga have fought the Islamic State for three years, and they know it is in the US-led coalition’s interest not to have conflict between Kurds and Baghdad, while offensives are ongoing against ISIS.
Over the last month Israeli flags have appeared at rallies in Kurdish cities supporting independence. This is part of a historic connection, underlined by the fact that Israeli politicians have expressed support for Kurdish independence. On the streets of Erbil on September 25, one SUV had been decorated with Israeli flags. But senior politicians asked at press conferences about Israeli support preferred not to comment directly on the issue, seeking instead to emphasize that the Kurdish region is multicultural and pluralistic.
Polls closed at six in the evening, however exit polls or returns were not available from the authorities. Video from local TV showed Kurdish turnout appeared high in areas disputed with Baghdad, such as Kirkuk and Bashiqa, as well as areas where lukewarm support was expected, such as Sulaimaniyeh. A last minute support of the referendum on September 24th by the Gorran and Komol Islamist party was expected to boost the vote.
Reuters contributed to this report.