January 16, 2018
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People in Iraqi Kurdish capital hope independence will set them free

Erbil (Iraq), Sep 24 (efe-epa).- With the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq on Sunday braced for an independence referendum the following day, citizens of the Kurdish capital Erbil spoke of their hopes that the separatist ballot would set them free.

Hamza Lak Lam, a 38-year-old Kurd, ordered a coffee and sat down with a group of his colleagues to debate the separatist ballot at a café tucked away in the alleyways of Erbil's old souk.

"It's good for our country because, afterwards, we will be free," he told EFE.

The streets of the ancient city of Erbil are adorned with Kurdish tricolor flags, some of which extol the Sept. 25 referendum despite warnings from regional powers, the international community and the central Iraqi parliament in Baghdad that the vote should not go ahead.

Regional President Masoud Barzani, who continued to push for the referendum despite such deterrent, has insisted that negotiations with Baghdad over the region's status would only come after polling has been done.

Back at the cafe, which is frequented only by men, Ayub Karim Mohamed, 45, told EFE that he will vote "yes" to independence in the referendum because the Kurdish people have spent a long time fighting against the Baghdad regime.

Dressed in traditional Kurdish attire, Karim spoke of how, in recent history, the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein (1979-2003) tried to put an end to the Kurdish population.

As an example, he drew on the 1988 chemical attack on Halabja that killed around 5,000 Kurds _ mainly women, children and the elderly _ in the space of a few hours,

The atrocity has since become a symbol of martyrdom in the Kurdish independence movement.

"Independence has to happen to be able to say, finally, we are free and we can put our flag up at the United Nations. It would be very good news," Karim said.

However, members of the UN Security Council on Sept. 21 expressed concern about the potentially destabilizing impact that the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum could have in the region.

Joining a long line of regional critics of the independence bid, Turkey, which borders Iraqi Kurdistan to the north, has said it would not rule out intervening militarily if it deems the vote to be a threat to its national security.

As he took the last swig of his Turkish coffee, Karim asked: "Why do all these countries want democracy for themselves, but they won't give it to us?"

At that moment, a young boy broke away from the man who was accompanying him into the cafe and, in perfect English, said: "We want freedom for Kurdistan for all of the peshmergas (Kurdish soldiers) who have split their blood in the battle."

More than 5 million Kurds are eligible to vote in favor or against the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan on Sept. 25.

The region has enjoyed considerable autonomy since the early 1990s, a status bolstered in the 2005 constitution that defined Iraq as a federal state.

by Isaac J. Martin

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