KALAK, IRAQ —
'For the sake of the sacrifices and blood of the martyrs, let's all say yes for Kurdistan independence," reads a large billboard in the center of Kalak, a small town in Iraq's northern Kurdish region. "Independence is not given, it's taken!" reads another banner hanging below a cluster of red, green, yellow and white Kurdish flags.
Iraq's Kurds are set to vote Monday in a referendum on support for independence that has stirred fears of instability across the region as the war against the Islamic State group winds down. The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.
The United Sates and the United Nations have condemned the referendum. Turkey, which is battling its own Kurdish insurgency, has threatened to use military force to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state, and Baghdad has warned it will respond militarily to any violence resulting from the vote.
Initial results from the poll are expected on Tuesday, with the official results announced later in the week.
Denied independence when colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds form a sizable minority in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. They have long been at odds with the Baghdad government over the sharing of oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories like the city of Kirkuk, which are expected to take part in the vote.
"There are pressures on us to postpone, to engage in dialogue with Baghdad, but we will not go back to a failed experiment," Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, said to roars of applause at a rally of tens of thousands in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Friday evening.
But beneath the sea of flag-waving, the Kurdish region continues to be plagued by endemic corruption and economic decline.
Among the portraits on Kalak's main street is that of Amen Jadr Mahmoud's 18-year-old son, Gaylan, one of the more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, killed in the fight against the Islamic State group. "His death was noble, he died fighting for Kurdistan," Mahmoud said.
But even Mahmoud, a die-hard nationalist who lost four other relatives to fighting with Iraqi government forces decades earlier, has misgivings about the Kurdish region's political leadership.
"If we have a state then we will build institutions that will let us change the faces of the main parties," he said. "Once we have a state we can get rid of them or at least prevent them from stealing so much."
The Kurds have been a close American ally for decades, and the first U.S. airstrikes in the campaign against IS were launched to protect Irbil. Kurdish forces later regrouped and played a major role in driving the extremists from much of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second largest city.
"The Kurdish contribution to the ISIS fight, it can't be overstated," said U.S. Army Col. Charles Costanza, a commander at a coalition base just outside Irbil, using another acronym for the extremist group. "We couldn't have done Mosul without the Kurds."
But the U.S. has long been opposed to Kurdish moves toward independence, fearing it could lead to the breakup of Iraq and bring even more instability to an already volatile Middle East.
Mahmoud and other Kurds who support independence view the international opposition as a betrayal.
"My son was fighting Daesh on behalf of the entire world," said Mahmoud, using an Arabic acronym for IS. "And now the international community is ignoring us."
The Kurds' sense of sacrifice and betrayal is rooted in decades of war and oppression, in which they repeatedly rose up against the Baghdad government and were often brutally repressed.
During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Kurds sided with Iran against Saddam Hussein, who punished them with a scorched-earth campaign involving chemical weapons that killed an estimated 50,000 people. A no-fly zone imposed by the U.S. in the early 1990s largely halted the killings, and allowed the Kurds to develop de facto autonomy, which was formalized after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Sense of urgency
In the years after the American invasion, the Kurdish region emerged as a rare success story. The peshmerga insulated the region from the insurgency and sectarian killings that plagued much of the rest Iraq, and oil revenues fueled an economic boom, leading to talk of a new Dubai.
That all changed in 2014, when IS rampaged across northern Iraq, at one point approaching within a few miles of Irbil. The collapse in global oil prices later that year led to a severe economic downturn, exposing a government riddled with corruption and an economy dominated by a bloated public sector. Barzani, whose term expired in 2015, has prevented parliament from meeting for two years, and many opponents of the referendum see it as a cynical attempt to hold onto power.
Meanwhile, as the peshmerga halted the IS advance and then began to push back with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, they seized territory equivalent to 50 percent of their autonomous region, further raising tensions with Baghdad. The oil-rich city of Kirkuk, with large Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian communities, is divided over the referendum and has seen low-level clashes in the days leading up to Monday's vote.
Hoshyar Zebari, a longtime Kurdish political figure and former Iraqi foreign minister, acknowledges that the referendum is partly an attempt by Kurdish leaders to cement their legacy, but says it is also rooted in Baghdad's failings and in Iran's growing influence over the central government.
"The new Iraq is broken," he said. "If we miss this opportunity for independence, it will never happen again in our lifetimes."