Kurds voted in large numbers in an independence referendum in northern Iraq on Monday, ignoring pressure from Baghdad, threats from Turkey and Iran, and international warnings that the vote may ignite yet more regional conflict.
The vote organised by Kurdish authorities is expected to deliver a comfortable "yes" for independence, but is not binding. It is designed to give Masoud Barzani, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), a mandate to negotiate the secession of the oil-producing region.
Turnout among 5.2 million eligible voters was 78%, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said, and vote-counting had started. Final results are expected within 72 hours.
Voters were asked to say 'yes' or 'no' to the question: "Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the (Kurdistan) Region to become an independent country?"
For Iraqi Kurds, part of the largest ethnic group left stateless when the Ottoman empire collapsed a century ago, the referendum offered a historic opportunity despite intense international pressure to call it off.
"We have seen worse, we have seen injustice, killings and blockades," said Talat, waiting to vote in the regional capital, of Erbil, as a group of smiling women in colourful Kurdish dress emerged from the school showing their fingers stained with ink, a sign they had cast their ballots.
At Sheikh Amir village, near the Peshmerga front lines west of Erbil, long lines of Kurdish fighters waited to vote at a former school. Most emerged smiling, holding up ink-marked fingers.
In the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, Kurds sang and danced as they flocked to polling stations.
Opposition to the vote simmered among the Arabs and Turkmen who live alongside the Kurds in the northern Iraqi city and there were rumours the vote would not take place in mixed areas. Officials later ordered an overnight curfew.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security services "to protect citizens being threatened and coerced" in the Kurdish region, after unconfirmed reports that Arabs in a small town in eastern Iraq were compelled to vote yes. Kurdish officials said no such coercion happened.
Speaking on state television, the prime minister called the referendum "unconstitutional" and said: "The referendum took place without any international recognition ... we will not accept its result nor will the international community or any other party."
The Kurds say the vote also acknowledges their contribution in confronting Islamic State after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq. But with 30 million ethnic Kurds scattered across the region, mainly in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, Tehran and Ankara fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurdish populations.
Iran announced a ban on direct flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday, while Baghdad asked foreign countries to stop direct oil trading with the Kurdish region and demanded that the KRG hand over control of its international airports and border posts with Iran, Turkey and Syria.
Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran regarded the referendum as "treason" against the Iraqi Kurds.
"Iran has blocked air traffic to this region but we are hopeful that the four neighbouring countries will block the land borders with Iraq too," he was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
Tehran supports Shia Muslim groups that have been ruling or holding security and government positions in Iraq since the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Syria, embroiled in a devastating civil war and whose Kurds are pressing ahead with their own self-determination, rejected the referendum.