High-rise buildings surrounded by parks and villas pierce the skyline. Hotels and luxury cars dot the landscape. It would be easy to mistake this place for a neighborhood in uber-rich Dubai, but in fact it is downtown Irbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan.
Ahmad, a taxi driver, motions proudly to signs of his city’s rapid development. He points out newly-built bridges and luxury housing projects and gestures to the tarmacked roads and wide pavements.
“Look at all this,” says Ahmad, his eyes aglow in the rearview mirror. “People wonder why we want independence from Iraq, but all you need to do is look around you. We are light years ahead of Baghdad.”
For now, the Kurdish-governed northern Iraqi region remains an island of stability in war-weary Iraq. People in Irbil say this has come about despite the central government in Baghdad, not because of it.
Kurdish leaders accuse the central government of widespread corruption, paving the way to many of Iraq’s security woes – including the rise of ISIS.
One of the largest Kurdistan flags in Irbil can be found draped over a large, hollowed-out luxury tower block. Its development ground to a halt in 2014 after ISIS emerged in nearby areas, putting an end to a nearly 10-year economic boom in the region.
Call to arms for Baghdad
But while the overwhelming ‘yes’ vote in Monday’s referendum on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence was a materialization of the dreams of many Kurds, for Baghdad and its allies in Iran and Turkey, it is a call to arms.
After issuing multiple condemnations in the run-up to the plebiscite, the Iraqi Parliament voted Monday to authorize the use of force against Iraqi Kurdistan. Baghdad has given the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) until Friday to hand over the airports it administers in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared the referendum “null and void” and his army has been conducting joint military exercises with the Iraqi army on their shared border. Meanwhile, Iran has threatened to seal its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and has already closed its airspace to flights to and from the region.
Both Turkey and Iran have restive Kurdish populations and fear that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan could galvanize their own nationalist movements.
And it’s not just Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbors who are irked by the specter of secession. Stern warnings have also come from the United States, the United Kingdom and the United Nations Security Council, which all argue that the vote detracts from the fight against ISIS.
In both Syria and Iraq, Kurdish fighters have been instrumental in the campaign against ISIS, which has left the terror group on its last legs. And Iraqi Kurdish leaders say it is time to reap the fruits of their labor.
For Kurds, statehood has been over a century in the making. Their calls for a Kurdish nation were ignored in a 1916 British-French secret agreement, known as Sykes-Picot, that drew the boundaries of the modern-day Middle East.
In the final treaty marking the conclusion of World War I, the Allies dropped demands for an autonomous Turkish Kurdistan. Instead, the Kurdish region was divided up among several countries.
Party atmosphere at polls
Drumbeats about war fall on deaf ears in the capital of would-be independent Kurdistan.
At the supermarkets, there is no rush to stockpile supplies. Irbil’s mayor even assured locals Tuesday that there was no cause for alarm because “we have enough food for the next six months.”
When people flocked to the polling stations – referendum officials say the turnout was 76% – the atmosphere was more reminiscent of a party than a political event.
Voters, many of them decked out in colorful traditional clothing, compared the referendum to the “biggest Eid,” a reference to an important Muslim holiday.
Six-year-old Hidad wears an oversized head-wrap and traditional sirwal, or baggy trousers. He sticks his palm out to present three black pebbles.
“Each pebble tells Iraq ‘I divorce you,’” his father explains. In Islam, a marriage is considered dissolved when a man utters “divorce” three times in the presence of his wife.
“The people are happy, and the people are the ones who will determine their fate and will therefore bear the consequences,” Aso Karim Mohamad, 64, tells CNN.
Mohamad is a former member of the Kurdish Parliament who fought with the Peshmerga, the fighting force of Iraqi Kurdistan, in the bloody decade leading up to the creation of the KRG.
In 1988, then-President Saddam Hussein’s forces killed an estimated 100,000 Kurds and destroyed more than 4,000 villages.
“I voted in ’92 for the first time for the first Kurdish Parliament after our intifada,” he says, referring to the 1991 Kurdish uprising against Hussein. “My feeling is the same today … this is a great day in my life.”
For many of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga – credited with being a driving force in the fight against ISIS – are the very reason they are throwing caution to the wind.
“The Kurds aren’t afraid of anything, because of the Peshmerga,” Kafiah al Raouf Sadik, an educational official, tells CNN. “God willing, we will achieve our goals here.”
Refugees vote for security
At the Hassan Shami refugee camp midway between Mosul and Irbil, the mood is different. The sun beats down on inhabitants who spend their days standing in long food lines and end them sleeping in tarpaulin tents typically shared with around five other family members.
The UN Security Council has said it fears that the lives of these refugees may fall into limbo.
“Council members note that the planned referendum … could detract from efforts to ensure the safe, voluntary return of over three million refugees and internally displaced persons,” the Security Council said in a news release.
But camp manager Twana Anwar tells CNN he doesn’t think their work will be affected: “I’m not pessimistic … Humanitarian efforts should go on as normal.”
The refugees here are mostly Arab, all survivors of ISIS, and they were invited to vote in Monday’s referendum by the Kurdish charity group that controls the camp.
“People voted for Kurdistan, they voted for security,” says Abu Ali, standing among a crowd of men who gather around the CNN team near the camp’s entrance.
“I lost everything, my car, my house. What should one do?” the refugee from the destroyed town of Rabia asks. “I hold Baghdad’s government responsible for what happened to me. Security, security, security. People want security.”
Another Arab who works in the camp, Abu Mohammad, is an employee with the central government in Baghdad, but says he voted in favor of independence.
“If the Baghdad government were my dad, I would still vote against him,” he says, sweat streaming down his face.
‘We want safety’
Further into the camp, an elderly man named Abu Raed huddles with his friends under the bottom of a water tank dressed in Arab robes, seeking respite from the scorching sun.
He explains that the war with ISIS robbed him of all that he owns. “I’m an old person and after all I’ve been through I’m tired of life,” he says. “It’s a sin to say I want to die but I’m tired of life.”
“After we saw ISIS, from what should we be afraid?” asks Um Mohammad, a Turkmen mother-of-four who lost her husband during her family’s escape from ISIS.
A kite flies high over the camp, perhaps a better symbol than any other of the refugees’ escape from ISIS – like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the militant group had banned kite flying.
Upon closer inspection, it turns out the kite was constructed from a plastic bag and sticks by Waddah, aged nine.
“We were under ISIS for two-and-a-half years,” his father Salhab Hussein explains.
“The children played indoors … this is why we voted for Kurdistan … We don’t care who rules over us – Kurd, Arab or Turkmen – as long as they give us safety.”