Iraq’s parliament demanded on Monday that troops be sent to the disputed city of Kirkuk as the autonomous Kurdish region staged a historic but non-binding referendum on independence.
"The parliament demands that the head of the army, prime minister Haider Al Abadi, deploy forces in all of the zones the autonomous region of Kurdistan has taken control of since 2003 in order to protect the safety of citizens located in contested areas,” said parliament speaker Saleem Al Jabouri.
The Iraqi constitution stipulates that the government is obliged to comply with the parliamentary vote.
The oil rich city of Kirkuk, which participated in the referendum despite not being part of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, fell under the control of Kurdish forces in 2014 following the chaos that ensued when ISIL extremists captured larges swathes of the country, including Mosul. Parts of Nineveh, Diyala and Salaheddin provinces under the control of Kurdish forces but contested by Baghdad also took part in Monday's vote.
"If there are clashes in these zones, it will be the job of the federal forces to apply the law," Saad Al Hadithi, Mr Al Abadi's spokesperson, said in response to the parliamentary order.
The head of the Badr Brigade, a member of the powerful Hashed Al Shaabi umbrella group of mainly Shiite militias that has fought alongside the Iraqi army in the battle against ISIL, said it would next be looking to Kirkuk and other areas controlled by Kurdish forces.
"Our next objective is Kirkuk and the disputed zones occupied by armed gangs, outlaws who do not respond to the army command," said Karim Al Nuri.
Kirkuk province declared an overnight curfew in the city as tensions increased.
Arshad Al Salehi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and head of the Turkmen Front political party in Kirkuk, told The National that Turkmen and Arab areas of the city had been very quiet on Monday with people afraid to leave their homes.
“What is happening in Kirkuk is a complete and utter joke — internally displaced people are forced to go to polling stations and vote in favour of independence, otherwise they are told that they would be forced out of their camps,” he said, referring to displaced people who fled ISIL and the government's subsequent battle with the group.
Meanwhile, the parliament in Baghdad approved draft legislation ordering the closure of the main border crossing with the Kurdish region as well as the return of disputed oilfields.
All of this came as Iraqi Kurds cast their ballots in the controversial referendum on Kurdish independence. Some five million people were expected to vote across the three provinces that make up Iraq's autonomous Kurdish — Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk — as well as in disputed areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
At 5pm local time, one hour before polling stations had initially been set to close, turnout had reached 76 per cent, according to Erbil-based Rudaw TV.
With turnout so high, many polling stations stayed open for an extra hour — though all were closed by 7pm.
"Today has been a dream, I couldn't sleep last night, I'm proud and very happy to have voted yes for independence of Kurdistan," said Vian Baban, a lawyer in Erbil.
Despite this, Ms Baban fears of possible consequences if the result is in favour of independence.
"We are worried about the aftermath of the vote — what will happen to us? Some of my family members have mixed feelings, they say that the time is not right but I guess there is never really a right time."
Kurdish authorities pressed ahead with the vote despite mounting regional and international opposition.
Iraqi vice president Ayad Allawi on Monday called on Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani and the rest of the Kurdish leadership to “freeze the results of the referendum as part of a transitional phase”.
Mr Allawi urged for constructive and serious national dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to “serve a united and federal Iraq”.
“I advise regional countries to abstain from meddling in Iraqi affairs, in any kind, that dents Iraqi unity, and for the Iraqi government to strictly observe this,” Mr Allawi said during a press conference in Baghdad.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meanwhile, warned of a shutdown of oil exports which the Kurdistan Regional Government relies on for revenue.
“Let’s see where the regional government of northern Iraq will flow its crude oil, through which channels and where it sells it from now on,” Mr Erdogan said, while also hinting at cross-border military operations: “We may arrive one night, suddenly.”
Ankara also announced joint military exercises with Baghdad, while Iran called the vote “illegal and illegitimate” and said it had closed its borders with the Kurdish region at the request of Iraq’s government.
Conflicting reports on Monday morning said Turkey had closed the Habur border crossing with northern Iraq. But Turkey’s customs minister, Bulent Tufenkci, confirmed that the border “remains open, although tight controls have been imposed on traffic”.
In response to reports of the border crossing, Iraqi Kurdish prime minister Nechirvan Barzani said: “Turkey and other states should see the vote for what it is — an expression of the will of Iraqi Kurds”.
“Kurdistan’s regional government has never been a threat to Turkey and will remain not to be so,” Mr Barzani added at a press conference.
“On behalf of the people of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Regional Government, I would like to reiterate that Turkey does not have a better friend than the Kurds.”
Ahead of the vote, Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi warned on Sunday he “will take all necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country” without elaborating on what these measures would look like.
Mr Al Abadi demanded that all airports and border crossings in the Kurdish region must be handed back to the federal government’s control. He also urged regional and international countries not to buy oil from the Kurdistan region but to “deal exclusively with the federal government of Iraq in regards to entry posts and oil”.
The United States and United Nations have repeatedly warned the vote will destabilise the region and distract from Iraq’s battle against ISIL.