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Iraq's Kurdish Region Holds Historic Vote

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Iraq's Kurdish region is holding a historic vote today on whether to separate from Iraq. The vote so far has been peaceful. But the U.S. and other Kurdish allies fear the referendum could spark violence in disputed areas claimed by the Kurds. Iran and Turkey have been holding military maneuvers as a warning to Kurdish leaders. NPR's Jane Arraf is in the disputed city of Kirkuk, and she's on the line now. Hey there, Jane.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hi. So this vote, I know, has been especially contentious in Kirkuk where you are. Remind us why and give us a sense of what's happening there today.

ARRAF: So Kirkuk has always been sort of a tinderbox. It's in the middle of the oil field, so there's a lot of wealth here. And up until three years ago when ISIS came in, it was essentially part of the Iraqi government control. But Kurdish forces fought ISIS. They've taken control of the city, and now this referendum, a referendum for independence from Iraq, is taking place here in Kirkuk, as well as other parts of Kurdistan. Now, the issue here is it's not just Kurds. It's Arabs and Turkmen, and it's a very controversial thing holding the vote at this time in this place.

KELLY: And tell us, as you walk around the city today, what are you seeing unfolding?

ARRAF: Well, I'm actually in a polling station. So they've set up polling stations in the schools. And I'm in one that's in an Arab Turkmen neighborhood, not a Kurdish neighborhood. I'm looking at an Iraqi flag on the wall, but almost every voter who has come in here, Mary Louise, has been Kurdish. The Turk - the Turkmen and the Arabs are basically boycotting this vote. The Kurds, of course, are ecstatic. This is their chance. They say they've been waiting for a hundred years for their own state, and they're seizing it. So the turnout is expected to be very high among the Kurds. But among the Arabs and Turkmen in this divided and diverse city, that's another story.

KELLY: Give us a sense of why Kurdish neighbors are so opposed to this. I mean, Iran opposes this. Saudi Arabia opposes this. Turkey, as we mentioned, opposes this. How come?

ARRAF: Well, on the part of the neighbors - and Iran now is doing military maneuvers and it's cut flights to the Kurdistan region - Iran, Turkey and Syria to some extent have their own large Kurdish populations, and they're worried that if there's an independent Kurdistan here, then their Kurds will want independence as well. But it's not just the neighbors. It's the United States and the U.N. and Europe. They've all warned the Kurdistan region not to do this, but President Masoud Barzani had a press conference last night in which he made clear he thinks that opposition will eventually go away. He says the Kurds are a peaceful people, but they will defend themselves. He says no matter what the threats are, no matter what the opposition, they are pressing ahead. They eventually want independence. This is a first step. That's the way they see it here. So a very exciting day for the Kurds.

KELLY: And just quickly, Jane, today's vote is not binding. So what happens now?

ARRAF: So it is a mandate basically. That's the way the Kurdish leadership sees it. It's not binding. You're absolutely right. What happens the day after this vote is the Kurds are hoping that Iraq will reopen talks. Iraq has made clear that it's not going to do that, so they might actually be heading into quite a dangerous stalemate.

KELLY: All right. Thanks so much, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you.

KELLY: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in the city of Kirkuk in Iraq's Kurdish region. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.