Kurds voted in large numbers in an independence referendum in northern Iraq on Monday, ignoring pressure from Baghdad, threats from Turkey and Iran, and warnings from other countries, including the US, 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 per cent, the Kurdish Rudaw TV station said, and vote-counting had started. Final results are expected within 72 hours.
Speaking on state television, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi 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.''
He 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.
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,'' one Talat, waiting to vote in the regional capital of Erbil, told Reuters, 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.
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.
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.
President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey could cut off the pipeline that carries oil from northern Iraq to the outside world, piling more pressure on the Kurds.
''After this, let's see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it,'' Erdogan said in Istanbul. ''We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it's done.''
The Iraqi army started ''major manoeuvres'' with the Turkish army at the border, the Iraqi defence ministry said, outlining coordinated measures by the two countries against the Kurds in retaliation for the referendum.
Turkey later took the Rudaw TV channel off its satellite service TurkSat, a Turkish broadcasting official told Reuters.
The US State Department said in a statement it was ''deeply disappointed'' the KRG decided to conduct the referendum but added that the United States' ''historic relationship'' with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region would not change.
Asked about the referendum, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Monday, ''We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran.''
The referendum was held not only in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, but in areas in the north of the country where Kurdish forces have advanced against Islamic State. Those areas also have large non-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.