Polls open in Iraqi Kurdistan to vote on independence

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Polls have opened across Kurdistan in northern Iraq to vote on whether the autonomous region should become an independent country, even though the central government in Baghdad strongly objects to the vote.

Polls opened at 8 a.m. local time on Monday and voters were seen waiting in line at several polling stations in Erbil, the region’s capital. The polling stations – more than 2,000 of them – are scheduled to remain open until 6 p.m. local time.

Voters are being asked whether they want Kurdistan and disputed areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state. An estimated 5.6 million people who live in Kurdistan and areas under its control are eligible to vote, according to the regional government.

Voters are widely expected to vote in favor of independence, although official results are not expected until Tuesday.

Monday’s referendum will not automatically lead to statehood and it remains unclear how the regional government will proceed, but Baghdad is strongly opposed to an independent Kurdistan, as are neighbors such as Turkey who fear a spread of separatism among their own Kurdish populations.

The push for independence has also raised concern that it could spark a conflict at a time when the Islamic State group (ISIS) is quickly losing territory. A Yes vote, however, would give Kurds more leverage in their negotiations with Baghdad.

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, who has long campaigned for a vote on independence, told the Voice of America on Saturday that he hoped his government could soon begin talks with Baghdad to discuss issues such as border demarcation and a timeline for declaring independence.

Barzani, who has blamed the central government for failing to accept a partnership with Kurdistan, has kept the door open for a compromise.

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