On a highway outside Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Alwa wholesale vegetable and fruit market was plastered with banners urging Kurds to vote “yes” in yesterday’s independence referendum. Just below them, the origin of trucks pulling in with sacks of tomatoes, apples, and peppers, hinted at how big a gamble the vote may prove to be: Many were stamped with addresses in Turkey, which has condemned the referendum. Others came from Iran, which is just as strongly opposed. When I asked a young trader what would happen if these countries shut their borders to pressure Kurdistan’s regional government—as they have threatened to do—he shook his head. “The market would die,” he said.
Independence is a lifelong dream for many Iraqi Kurds, who suffered horribly under Saddam Hussein, and so Monday’s referendum was met with understandable jubilation in Erbil, a stronghold of President Masoud Barzani’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the force behind the vote. Initial results suggested turnout was high, with over 90 percent voting for secession. Rhetoric has escalated sharply since then, with Baghdad urging neighboring countries to shut down flights into the region—so far, only Iran complied—while demanding that the regional government hand over control of its airports and border crossings by Friday or face a blockade. Turkey, which fears stirring separatism among its own Kurdish population, has threatened similar action. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the vote “treachery” and suggested the region would "not find food or clothing" if its sanctions were implemented.