SULAIMANIYA, Iraq (Reuters) - Some Kurdish leaders describe Monday’s referendum on independence as a historic chance for the ethnic group to shape its own destiny after decades of oppression. Yet there was little enthusiasm for voting in the city of Sulaimaniya.
No long queues snaked around buildings as one might expect of a people who have dreamed of their own nation all their lives.
Only about 40 voters were casting their ballots at any one time at each polling station located at schools, and much of Sulaimaniya was subdued.
The sharp contrast with celebrations in the other major Kurdish city of Erbil highlighted divisions between the main political parties, suggesting problems ahead for the administration of any future state.
In Sulaimaniya, home of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), officials caution that the vote could invite trouble from Turkey and Iran, and a referendum should be held at a more appropriate time.
Those neighbouring countries fear independence will encourage their own restive Kurdish populations to press for change. The Baghdad government says the vote is unconstitutional.
Turkey has always backed Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), despite his initial push for statehood.
Tehran supports Barzani’s rival, Jalal Talabani of the PUK. Barzani and Talabani fought on opposing sides in an Iraqi Kurdish civil war in the 1990s which saw Iranian, Iraqi and Turkish forces drawn into the fighting.
Thousands of fighters and civilians were killed.
Iran banned flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday, while Baghdad asked foreign companies to stop oil trading with Kurdistan and demanded that the KRG hand over control of its international airports and border posts with Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Tensions are high between Kurdish fighters and Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militias.
The KDP in Erbil argues that it is time for the Kurds to run their own affairs after many years of persecution at the hands of Saddam Hussein and others.
Some voters questioned the intentions of KDP leaders and wonder whether they have the resources and willpower to run an independent state.
“I don’t really think Barzani will help. We don’t have any freedom now and won’t have any. Only Barzani and the people around him and his relatives will have freedom and benefit from independence,” said housewife Zaina Jamal after voting.
Polling stations opened at 8:00 a.m. (0500 GMT) and should close at 6:00 p.m. Final results are expected within 72 hours.
The vote, expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, is not binding and is meant to give Barzani’s KDP a mandate to negotiate secession of the oil producing region with Baghdad and neighbouring states.
There were few referendum banners in Sulaimaniya urging people to vote.
“I say yes, yes, yes to a Kurdish state. I am from now on the son of a Kurdish state,” said Dirshad Ahmed, a writer.
Like others who voted, he preferred to enjoy the moment instead of asking tough questions about internal Kurdish divisions and hostility to the vote from regional powers and the Baghdad government.
Kurdistan has long been plagued by political disunity between the KDP and decades-old rival PUK. It was most recently exacerbated by the extension of Barzani’s term.
Some Sulaimaniya residents kept their distance from the referendum, preferring caution.
“I will not vote. The referendum is not good. It could be dangerous because of the threat from Turkey and Iran,” said shop owner Ali Ahmed.
The Kurds began moving towards semi-autonomy since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam, ending what some called genocide against the ethnic group.
But friction with Baghdad over oil and other issues led the Kurds to press harder for independence in a region that has been relatively stable compared to other parts of the country where sectarian blood spilled between Sunnis and Shi‘ites.
Iraq has been struggling to come up with a formula for stability since the fall of Saddam and conflicts have drained state coffers.
Some Iraqis have suggested the country should be split into Kurdish, Sunni and Shi‘ite regions as a way of managing sectarian and ethnic tensions.
Kamran Ahmed, a university economics professor, said at a polling station: “We will never again surrender to any Arab leader in Iraq.”
He had high hopes for a Kurdish state and said Iraq could be broken up, the kind of talk that infuriates regional powers and Baghdad.
“If there is a Sunni region then that’s fine and the same goes for Shi‘ites. If our experiment is successful it could benefit the Sunnis and Shi‘ites,” he said.
At another polling station, Kurdish security guard Sarbast Saeed urged the Shi‘ite-led Baghdad government to rein in Iranian-backed Shi‘ite militias instead of complaining about a possible Kurdish state.
“They have no right to attack us when they let the militias attack Sunnis. Give the Sunnis their own state,” he said.
It’s that kind of bitterness that all sides will face as the Kurds try to realise their dreams of a homeland.
Writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Giles Elgood