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story.lead_photo.caption A Kurdish man in Irbil, Iraq, takes a picture as his wife shows her ballot during voting in Monday’s independence referendum.

IRBIL, Iraq -- Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a landmark referendum on supporting independence, a move billed by the Kurdish leadership as an exercise in self-determination but viewed as a hostile act by Iraq's central government. Neighboring Turkey even threatened a military response.

To Baghdad, the vote threatens a redrawing of Iraq's borders, taking a sizable part of the country's oil wealth with it. For Turkey and Iran, leaders feared the move would embolden their own Kurdish populations.

The vote -- likely to be a resounding yes when official results are revealed later this week -- is not binding and will not immediately bring independence to the autonomous region. Nevertheless, it has raised tensions and fears of instability in Iraq and beyond.

Hours after polls closed Monday night across the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the Defense Ministry announced the launch of "large-scale" joint military exercises with Turkey.

Earlier in the day, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the Iraqi Kurdish region with military intervention. Iran -- which also opposed the vote -- held military exercises along its border with Iraq on Sunday.

The Iraqi Kurdish push for independence has been made even more combustible because Kurdish forces captured extensive territory in fighting against the Islamic State militant group in the past year. Those areas run from northwest Iraq to the Iranian border on the east -- including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Baghdad claims those territories, but the Kurds say they are part of their zone, and some residents there are participating in the referendum.

An escalation in rhetoric within Iraq set the stage for increased tensions as Iraqi Kurds lined up to vote.

The Kurdish region's president, Masoud Barzani, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi both threatened to use force ahead of Monday's referendum.

But Barzani later softened his tone. He said at a news conference Sunday that he believed the vote would be peaceful but acknowledged the path to independence would be "risky."

"We are ready to pay any price for our independence," he said.

Al-Abadi said on the eve of the referendum that the vote "threatens Iraq" and "is a danger to the region."

"We will take measures to safeguard the nation's unity and protect all Iraqis," he warned in a televised address from Baghdad.

The United States came out as an early opponent to the vote, initially urging it to be called off and then announcing a deal had been presented to Baghdad and Iraq's Kurdish leadership. But the Kurdish region pressed on with the vote despite the concerns.

U.S. officials warned that the vote is likely to destabilize the region and take resources and attention from the fight against Islamic State militants.

The promise of an independent state has long been at the center of Iraqi Kurdish politics. When colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

The dream of independence was evident among some of the voters in Kirkuk.

"I feel so great and happy. I feel we'll be free," Kurdish resident Suad Pirot said after voting. "Nobody will rule us. We will be independent."

The city has large Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen and Christian communities, and it had some small clashes in the days leading up to the vote. A curfew was imposed Monday evening out of fear of more violence.

Baghdad residents strongly criticized the referendum, saying it would raise sectarian tensions and create an "Israel in Iraq."

"This is a division of Iraq," said journalist Raad Mohammad. Another Baghdad resident, Ali al-Rubayah, described the vote as a "black day in the history of the Kurds."

Lawyer Tariq al-Zubaydi said the referendum was inappropriate amid the "ongoing threat of terrorism and Islamic State" militants.

"The country is going through a difficult period. This requires a coming together of our efforts," he said. "A unified country is better for all."

Speaking in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey doesn't recognize the referendum and declared its results would be "null and void."

Erdogan also suggested Turkey could halt the flow of oil from a pipeline from northern Iraq, a lifeline for the landlocked Kurdish region battling a severe economic crisis.

Turkey has urged the international community -- and especially regional countries -- not to recognize the vote and urged Iraqi Kurdish leaders to abandon "utopic goals," accusing them of endangering peace and stability for Iraq and the whole region.

"We could arrive suddenly one night," Erdogan said, pointing to Turkish military exercises underway along Turkey's border with the Iraqi Kurdish region.

"Our military is not [there] for nothing," he added.

Information for this article was contributed by Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Balint Szlanko, Ali Abdul-Hassan, Bram Janssen and Suzan Fraser of The Associated Press.

A Section on 09/26/2017

Print Headline: Iraqi Kurds vote on independence

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