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Iraqi Kurds Launch Independence Vote
By Mina Aldroubi

Campaigning for an independence referendum officially got underway in Iraq's Kurdistan Region on Tuesday despite international calls to delay the vote.

Iraq's central government, along with Ankara, Tehran and Washington all oppose the September 25 poll. Baghdad says the referendum is unconstitutional while the US Turkey and Iran say it will distract from the fight against ISIL.

The Kurdish Regional Government has ignored the pleas and pressed ahead with the vote plans. The Kurdistan region's electoral commission said on Tuesday the campaign would last for 18 days with the Iraqi Kurdish diaspora able to vote on September 23, two days ahead of the main poll.

Voting will take place both in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region and in areas that are still disputed such as Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Baghdad and the KRG in Erbil.

Kurds in Erbil took to the streets on Tuesday in celebration by waving the Kurdistan flag and chanting various slogans in support for independence for the Kurdistan Region.

"For many Kurds across the region, I feel a sense of kinship with my people, it's been our ultimate dream to have an independent state," Shermin Hamidi, a Kurdish Iraqi primary school teacher in Erbil, said.

"The referendum is a momentum of excitement for the Kurdish people, whether or not it will make a difference, the fact that it is being held on September 25 gives hope that our dream is actually going to become a reality," Ms Hamidi said.

Iraq's main international partners fear the referendum will lead to further complications between Baghdad and Erbil.

Turkish and Iranian concerns are underpinned by fears the poll could encourage secession in their own Kurdish-majority regions.

Kurdish officials in Iraq have insisted that the international community has offered no guarantees for the rights of the Kurdistan region should they delay the event.

The referendum reignites the issue of disputed territories with further implications for the fragile relationship between Erbil and Baghdad.

Kirkuk, which is home to Arabs, Turkmens, Christians and Kurds is a focal point of the dispute.

Last week, Kirkuk's provincial council voted to hold the referendum in the province, which lies outside the official KRG border but has been secured since 2014 by Kurdish peshmerga, who swept in as ISIL approached the city.

Only 24 of the 41 council members attended the vote, with 23 voting in favour of participating in the referendum and one abstaining. The remaining council members -- all Arabs and Turkmen -- boycotted the vote. Instead, they issued statements denouncing the vote as unconstitutional.

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi rejected the decision for Kirkuk to take part on the referendum. His spokesman, Saad Al Hadithi, called the decision "illegal and unconstitutional". The decision is expected to have dangerous implications not only for the future of Kirkuk but also for Iraq as a whole.

However, Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region insisted that "there is no turning back" on the vote.

The Change Movement, also known as Gorran, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group both want the vote to be postponed. Gorran, the main opposition group, believes the current arrangement for holding the referendum is "illegal and insists parliament is the right institution to call for the vote when the time is right".

However, the vote was called by Mr Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and was backed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the third largest party in Kurdistan, led by Jalal Talabani.

Meanwhile, on Monday, deputy prime minister Qubad Talabani urged for "unanimity" in Kurdistan's politics and society ahead of the referendum.

Mr Talabani's statement came during a state visit by British minister of state and foreign office Alistair Burt to Erbil.

Mr Burt assured Kurdish authorities that Britain can still foster continued dialogue between the regional and central governments. the vote. More than 5 million people are eligible to vote according to the commission.

"The United Kingdom is very keen to help and assist in this process of continuing dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad and we believe that this dialogue is continuing even up until the 25th of September."

A delegation from the Iraqi Shia National Alliance is set to visit the Kurdish region this week for talks on the independence referendum. The delegation is expected to urge Kurdish officials to postpone the vote.

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