Residents of Iraq's Kurdish region cast their votes today in a controversial independence referendum seen as a way to signal the ethnic minority's desire for self-determination, despite strong opposition from regional and global powers.
Iraq's central government rejected the vote long before it was held, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned of "follow-up steps to protect the unity of the country".
The non-binding vote, initiated by veteran leader Massud Barzani, has angered not only Iraq's federal government but also neighbouring Turkey and Iran, who are concerned it could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Also, Opposition Nationalist Movement Party leader Devlet Bahceli said Monday Turkey must pursue a comprehensive deterrence policy that includes the use of military force following Monday's controversial referendum in northern Iraq.
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Washington and many Western countries have also called for its postponement or cancellation, saying it will hamper the fight against the Islamic State.
Iraq and other neighbours of the Kurds "have to understand that we have done this step by step", Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman told Al Jazeera.
The ballots will take days to count, but early results suggest Kurds have voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence.
Polling stations are scattered across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan - Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk - as well as in disputed bordering zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
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"With the request of Iraq's central government, all Iranian flights to Sulaimaniyah and Erbil as well as flights passing through our airspace to the Kurdistan region have been suspended", said Kayvan Khosravi, the spokesman for Iran's Supreme National Security Council, on September 24.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, KRG representative to the USA, says that while the result is non-binding for the Iraqi government, it is "binding" for the Kurdish leadership "to follow the will of the people". "If the "Yes" vote wins, we will resolve our issues with Baghdad peacefully".
The vote went ahead despite objections from officials in Baghdad.
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