Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

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 sizable 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 ISIS-held pockets in Iraq.

The results could mark a 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 the Kurds’ 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-size 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 population of 37 million. (AP)

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Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

A helicopter flies over an Iraqi Kurd gathering where people were being urged to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Sept. 15, 2017. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags and hold torches as they walk up a mountain during a gathering to show support for the upcoming independence referendum and encourage people to vote in the town of Akra, some 300 miles north of Baghdad, Sept. 10, 2017. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

A Syrian Kurdish man holds a child dressed in a traditional outfit as he takes part in a rally in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli on Sept. 15, 2017, in support of an independence referendum in Arbil. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Sept. 15, 2017. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags during a gathering on Sept. 10, 2017, to show support for the upcoming independence referendum and encourage people to vote in the town of Akra, roughly 300 miles north of Baghdad. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

An Iraqi Kurd holds a Kurdish flag during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Sept. 15, 2017. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas take part in a gathering on Sept. 20, 2017, to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurdish people take part in a gathering on Sept. 20, 2017, to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga soldiers take part in a gathering on Sept. 20, 2017, to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Turkey and Iran fear independence for the Kurds of northern Iraq would embolden their own Kurdish minorities, while Baghdad has also bitterly opposed the plebiscite. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event on Sept. 16, 2017, to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

An Iraqi Kurdish woman takes a selfie as people gather in the street flying Kurdish flags to urge fellow Kurds to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Sept. 13, 2017. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Left without a state of their own when the borders of Europe and the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, the Kurds see themselves as the world’s largest stateless people. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds take part in an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, Sept. 16, 2017. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

A man waves a Kurdish flag during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

An Israeli flag is waved alongside Kurdish flags during an event in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital of Arbil on Sept. 16, 2017, to urge people to vote in a Sept. 25 independence referendum. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags and hold burning torches as they walk up a mountain during a gathering to show support for the upcoming independence referendum and encourage people to vote in the town of Akra, some 300 miles north of Baghdad on Sept. 10, 2017. Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region will hold a historic referendum on statehood in Sept. 25, 2017, despite opposition to independence from Baghdad and possibly beyond. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurdish woman stand next to Kurdish flags during a gathering on Sept. 10, 2017, to show support for the upcoming independence referendum and encourage people to vote in the town of Akra, some 300 miles north of Baghdad. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence

Iraqi Kurds celebrate while urging people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region will hold a historic referendum on statehood in Sept. 25 2017, despite opposition to independence from Baghdad and possibly beyond. (Photo: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

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