Kurds Expected To Vote Overwhelmingly In Favor Of Separating From Iraq
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Remaining overseas now, Iran has halted flights to Iraq's Kurdistan region. Turkey is conducting military maneuvers near the border. That's all an opposition to an historic referendum on Kurdish independence planned for tomorrow. Despite warnings from the U.S., the U.N. and almost all of their allies not to go ahead with a vote, the Kurds are expected to vote overwhelmingly in favor of separating from Iraq. NPR's Jane Arraf is in the Kurdish capital, Erbil.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bye, bye, bye, bye, Iraq.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Goodbye, Iraq. That's what these Kurds at a rally over the weekend were chanting and hoping.
ARRAF: They'd come to hear Kurdish president Masoud Barzani at a final rally before the referendum Monday. Barzani said, in spite of threats day and night from other countries, there was no going back.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MASOUD BARZANI: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: On the eve of the historic vote, the Kurdish president told a press conference he was disappointed that after so many Kurdish soldiers had died fighting ISIS, the U.S. and other countries didn't support independence.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARZANI: (Through interpreter) If freedom and independence is good for all these European countries, why is it not allowed for Kurdistan?
ARRAF: In the Kurdistan region's second city of Sulaymaniyah, there is less support for the timing of the referendum. But you just have to go to the Red Jail, a former Iraqi prison turned into a grim museum, to see why Kurds are so intent on independence. One of the museum directors, Dalawar Rasheed, shows me around.
DALAWAR RASHEED: This section for the anfal or genocide.
ARRAF: We're in a long room that's shaped like a coffin. All along the walls, there are photographs of men, women and lots of children. And along that, there are the names of 17,000 people written in red in Kurdish. Those are the names of people who died in Saddam Hussein's campaign against the Kurds in 1988.
RASHEED: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: Rasheed says those are just a fraction of the number of Kurds who died. Thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed, including Halabja, where Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons. A new wing of the museum is dedicated to Kurdish fighters killed fighting ISIS over the last three years.
RASHEED: (Through interpreter) We lost around 1,755 martyrs while we were fighting ISIS, but we could only fit 1,052 pictures in this hall. We have new names every day.
ARRAF: There are another 2,000 photos of Syrian and Turkish Kurds, women and men, who died fighting ISIS. After all that, Kurds feel they are owed something. In Erbil, after the rally this weekend, Zana Sherwan, an engineering student, was standing outside the stadium as fireworks exploded overhead.
ZANA SHERWAN: After what the U.S. and U.N. and everyone said, I just want to tell all the world, especially U.S., we foght for you and you turned your back against us. We fought against ISIS. We fought against terrorists.
ARRAF: Kurds here are more free than at any time in Iraq's history. But after all that's happened, they say that's not enough. They need independence. Jane Arraf, NPR News, Erbil.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.