KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Authorities in Kirkuk declared a curfew an hour and a half before polls closed in a Kurdish independence referendum on Monday as jubilant Kurds celebrated a vote that has raised fears of a new outburst of ethnic conflict.
Kirkuk’s Kurds had earlier flocked to polling stations in the ethnically-mixed city to vote to split from Iraq, singing and dancing, while many other residents stayed away.
Opposition to the vote has been simmering among the Arabs and Turkmen who live alongside the Kurds in the northern Iraqi city and there had been rumours that the vote would not take place in mixed areas.
On Monday afternoon, Iraqi security forces were deployed at key locations and access in and out of the city was closed when the curfew was imposed at 4.30 pm.
An unnamed Iraqi SWAT team officer stationed near the governorate said these were preventative measures, “to keep the situation under control.”
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani’s decision to include Kirkuk in the independence referendum was widely seen as a move to consolidate Kurdish control in a city claimed by the KRG and the Iraqi government.
The vote is expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, but is not binding. There have been international warnings that it could lead to more regional bloodshed.
At the Shorja polling station in a Kurdish neighbourhood, one of two where media were allowed to film by the electoral commission, jubilant Kurds of all ages arrived to vote in traditional dress.
“Today is the birthday of Kurdistan,” said Abu Bakr, an older Kurdish man. “Today is a holiday, a festival.”
Men wearing grey or light brown trousers and vests and women in long robes in vivid colours and headscarves, queued to vote and then showed off their ink-stained fingers before heading outside to join the throng of people singing and dancing.
People brought their families, eager to include their children in a historic moment. A father handed his ballot to his infant daughter, who dropped it into the box herself.
“Independence is our dream and our right,” said Hajal Ahmed Hussein. “We deserve a happy life.”
The 244 ballot boxes were only distributed around the city, where 800,000 were registered to vote, late on Sunday night, several days after they arrived. Rumours were rife that voting might not be held in mixed areas and at least one Kurd was killed in a pre-referendum clash.
Governor Najmaddin Kareem had called on voters of all ethnicities and religions in Kirkuk to vote and Nechirvan Barzani, KRG’s prime minister, said the Iraqi flag would continue to fly in Kirkuk after the referendum results.
Polling stations across Arab and Turkmen areas in the city were far less crowded than in Kurdish areas. Normally bustling shopping districts in non-Kurdish areas were shuttered, storefronts locked and with barely anyone in sight.
In the Shi’ite Turkmen neighbourhood of Tis’een, the streets were largely empty, save for a few black flags marking the sombre month of Muharram observed by Shi’ite Muslims.
In another nearby Turkmen neighbourhood, Kurdish electoral commission officials at the Kindi polling station told Reuters 800 of its 3,018 registered voters had cast their ballots by midday, including “many” Arabs from the area abutting the Governorate building, known as Al Muhafatha.
But an Arab resident of the area said neither he, nor any of his neighbours had voted. “We want Kirkuk to stay one country, under one capital, Baghdad,” said Abu Dumour whose family were some of the original Arab residents of Kirkuk.
“This referendum will split our city.”
At eight polling stations in Arab and Turkmen neighbourhoods, Reuters reporters saw mostly Kurdish voters, wearing their traditional costumes arrive in groups to vote. Several buses were seen outside these polling stations.
Most were empty by mid-afternoon. Officials at the various stations said between 200 to 2,000 of roughly 3,000 registered voters had shown up to vote by 4pm.
Three Arab residents voted at a polling station in a Shi’ite mosque in the Arab neighbourhood of 1 Hozeiran around 4pm. The only other people there were several Kurdish electoral officials and two dozen members of the Asayish Kurdish security force.
Nearby, Reuters reporters interviewing Turkman residents of the neighbourhood who did not vote saw a convoy of Kurdish celebrants drive through the deserted streets. They held large Kurdish flags, out their car windows and wielded light machine guns.
“We just want peace in our city, we don’t want any violence,” said Abu Ayad, one of the Turkmen interviewed, saying he did not vote because he wants Kirkuk to remain part of Iraq and because Turkmen party leaders had called for a boycott.
Two Christian men from Baghdad were seen leaving a polling station in a Turkmen area, amid dozens of Kurds. The pair said they both voted for an independent Kurdish state, because they want Kirkuk to be part of the Kurdish region.
“We haven’t gone back to Baghdad in 10 years because we’re scared of them,” said Abu Suzanne. “Let us join the Kurdish state, they will take care of us Christians.”
Kurdish crowds were seen near the governorate building celebrating even after the curfew came into force.
Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud; editing by Anna Willard and Philippa Fletcher