IRBIL, IRAQ —
Iraqi Kurds Monday voted in an independence referendum that is widely expected to yield an overwhelming “yes” vote, even though the poll is facing objections from the government in Baghdad as well as neighboring countries and the United States.
At the polls in the Kurdistan Regional capital, many voters donned traditional clothes and carried Kurdish flags, saying they believed this vote could be the beginning of the realization of their dream for independence.
“It is a true day for us,” said Mohammad, carrying his toddler son and a flag at a polling station in Irbil. “We have been waiting for 100 years for this. It is beautiful.”
Precincts reported high turnouts and a peaceful vote, but before the last ballot was cast, leaders in Baghdad had already sent troops toward disputed areas claimed by both Iraq and Irbil. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has vowed to take all “necessary measures” to preserve Iraqi unity.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has been consistently defiant, saying the independence vote was the will of the Kurdish people and “out of his hands.”
"Independence will allow us not to repeat past tragedies,” he said on Sunday. “The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it," Barzani said.
Official results are expected Tuesday. A "yes" vote would not trigger a declaration of independence, but Kurdish officials hope it would lay the ground for secession negotiations.
Barzani told VOA's Persian Service last week that following the referendum, the Kurdish government would begin discussions with Iraqi officials on such issues as border demarcation, division of natural resources and a timeline for declaring independence. Barzani estimated the transition time would be one to two years.
The Kurds and the Iraqi government have long-running disputes over oil revenues and who controls several key cities in the region.
Before the vote, Prime Minister Abadi ordered the Kurdish region to hand over control of its border crossings and airports, and called on other countries not to import Kurdish oil.
Neighboring Iran, which, like Syria and Turkey has a large Kurdish population, stopped all flights to Iraq's Kurdish region.
The Iranian and Turkish governments have expressed opposition to the independence referendum over fears it could boost similar separatist sentiment in their countries.
Syrian state media quoted Foreign Minister Walid Moallem rejecting the vote and reiterating that Syria recognizes a unified Iraq.
Turkey has battled a three-decade insurgency by Kurdish rebels in its southeast and the Turkish Foreign Ministry dismissed the vote as illegal and illegitimate. It said countries should not recognize the Kurdish action and warned Turkey "will take every measure that emanates from international law" if terrorists seeking to exploit the circumstances resulting from the referendum threaten Turkish national security.
WATCH: Iraqi Kurds Defiant as They Vote in Referendum
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would close a border crossing with Iraq and could move to block oil exports.
Other nations, such as the United States, have said they oppose the referendum on the grounds it takes focus away from the battle against the Islamic State group.
VOA's Persian Service contributed to this report.