Vote Count Under Way After Large Turnout For Kurdish Independence Referendum

Vote counting was under way after a large voter turnout for a referendum on independence in Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region that came despite warnings from the United Nations, the United States, Turkey, and Iran that the ballot would fuel tensions in the region.

After the German news agency dpa reported late on September 25 that initial results from the election commission in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, showed more than 90 percent of voters supported independence, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced he would not hold talks with Kurdish leaders on what he called an "unconstitutional" referendum.

Baghdad previously had warned that it will fight to retain Iraq's unity, including by cutting off vital oil revenues to the northern Kurdish region.

The president of the regional government, Masud Barzani, had said the nonbinding vote is the first step in a long process to negotiate independence for the region, which has been autonomous since 1991 and has played a major role in the war against Islamic extremists.

Turnout was 72 percent, with 3.3 million of 4.58 million registered voters taking part, the election commission said.

The ballot that voters were asked to consider had one question on it, written in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, and Assyrian: "Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdistani areas outside the [Kurdistan] region to become an independent country?"

Preliminary results were expected as early as September 26 and final results by September 28, the election commission said.

Abadi said on September 25 that he ordered security forces "to protect citizens being coerced" in the northern Kurdish region.

Abadi said Baghdad would take the "necessary measures" to protect the unity of the country, warning that the vote ''could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing [the Iraqis] to disastrous dangers that only God knows.''

Iran, Turkey, and the Baghdad government all held military exercises near the borders of the Kurdish region in the days surrounding the vote.

UN, Western Concerns

The UN -- as well as the United States and other Western powers -- expressed concern that the referendum would pull attention away from the war against Islamic State militants.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement late on September 25 that Washington was "deeply disappointed" that the ballot went ahead.

"The United States' historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region will not change in light of today's nonbinding referendum, but we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people," she said.

In New York, UN chief Antonio Guterres also said he was concerned about the "potentially destabilizing effects" of the referendum.

While saying he supported "the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and unity of Iraq," Guterres called for "structured dialogue and constructive compromise" between Baghdad and Kurdish leaders to resolve their differences.

The referendum took place in the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdish autonomous region -- Dahuk, Irbil, and Sulaymaniyah -- and some neighboring areas.

These areas include disputed cities such as oil-rich Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin, and Sinjar, over which Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have established control while fighting against IS militants who captured large parts of Iraq in 2014.

"The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it," Barzani told a news conference on September 24.

The referendum is also opposed by neighboring Turkey and Iran, both of which have sizable Kurdish minorities. Turkey has waged a war against Kurdish militants within its borders for years.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry said Ankara will take "all measures" under international law if the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum generates threats to Turkey's national security.

The ministry said it did not recognize the referendum and accused the Kurdish regional government of threatening the peace and stability of Iraq and the whole region.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan late on September 25 threatened to cut off the pipeline that carries oil from the Kurdish region of Iraq to the outside world, saying, "We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it's done."

According to a statement published by Abadi's office, the Iraqi government has asked the Kurdish region to hand over international border posts and its international airports.

It called on foreign countries to deal with Iraq's central government in regard to airports and borders and to stop oil trading with Kurdish regional authorities.

Ankara Warns Of 'Chaos'

Meanwhile, Iran's Supreme National Security Council spokesman Keivan Khosravi said the country halted all flights between the Islamic republic and Iraq's Kurdish region at the request of the government in Baghdad, Iranian state media reported.

Officials in Ankara said Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin touched on the referendum during a telephone call on September 25 and that they agreed the vote puts strains on the territorial integrity of Iraq and Syria.

Erdogan's office said that he and Iranian President Hassan Rohani also discussed their concerns about the vote in a telephone conversation, saying the referendum will cause "chaos in the region."

In brief statements about Putin's separate telephone talks with Erdogan and Rohani, the Kremlin did not mention the referendum.

Barzani said that he expected the strong reactions of the international community opposing Kurdish independence ''not to last forever'' after the vote is held.

He also dismissed concerns that the referendum could destabilize the region and pledged not to seek a redrawing of the region's borders.

With reporting by AP, AFP, IRIB, dpa, and Reuters