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Despite Urging Otherwise, Kurds In Iraq Move Forward With Scheduled Independence Vote


There is one issue in the Middle East where Iran, the U.S., Turkey and others agree. They do not want Iraq's Kurds to hold an independence referendum on Monday. They worry about what it would do to Iraq and how Kurds in other countries would see it. NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Iraq's Kurdish north.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is a pro-independence rally in Erbil, the capital of what is officially known as the Kurdistan region of Iraq. People here wanted to be just Kurdistan, their own state separate from a country many have come to hate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ARRAF: In the sea of Kurdish flags, There's a lone Israeli one. That's because Israel is the only regional player that supports Kurdish independence. Turkey and Iran have warned the Kurds not to hold the vote. So have the U.S. and the U.K. Mohammad Yasser is 20. He says it doesn't matter what the consequences are. The Kurds have waited long enough.

MOHAMMAD YASSER: (Through interpreter) This is a historic time for us. We've always been under the control of others. We want to be an independent country.

ARRAF: The Kurdish region's neighbors - Iran, Turkey and Syria - oppose the vote because they fear it would encourage their own Kurdish populations to break away as well. An example at the rally is Rogesh Adnan Yasin. She's waving a Kurdish flag, and she is beaming. She's not even from Iraq. She's from the Kurdish region of Syria.

ROGESH ADNAN YASIN: (Through interpreter) It's true we can't vote, but we are with the referendum with all our hearts. If they become a country here, they will support us and we will be next.

ARRAF: There are helicopters flying overhead above this dancing, cheering crowd. They've dropped something from the sky. And as they drift down, you can see they're rose petals.

There's no disputing that Iraqi Kurds have suffered. Under Saddam Hussein's regime, they were gassed, executed, and their villages destroyed. Many more were killed and driven out when they rose up against Saddam after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. and its allies created a no-fly zone where Iraqi war planes couldn't attack them. Over the years, the Kurds created a region that was the most stable and prosperous in Iraq. But Kurds still don't feel safe.

BURWA AZIZA: (Through interpreter) It was Arabs who killed us in the Saddam regime. It was Arabs who brought ISIS here to kill the Kurds.

ARRAF: That's Burwa Aziza. He has a shop near the Erbil citadel. These days he sells a lot of Kurdish flags and scarves with Kurdish leaders' faces. But normally he sells clothing. He says he hates Arabs so much he charges them double. But not every Kurd believes this referendum is the way to independence, particularly where support for Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and his party isn't as strong, like in the region's second-biggest city, Sulaymaniyah.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Vocalizing).

ARRAF: At the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah, groups of students sit around cafeteria tables between classes. One plays a Persian song on his guitar. Here, opinion is divided.

GOVAR KAWA: This is for the politicians' benefit. I'm going to vote for no.

ARRAF: That's Govar Kawa, who says independence won't solve his region's problems. The Kurdistan region is going through an economic crisis. Before this week, the Kurdish Parliament hadn't met for two years. While every Kurd will tell you they dream of an independent Kurdistan, they don't all agree on the path to get there. Jane Arraf, NPR News, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.