Iranian Kurds hold Kurdish flags as they take part in a gathering to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in the town of Bahirka, north of Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 21, 2017.
The controversial referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is set for September 25. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Who are the Kurds?
01:40 - Source: CNN
Irbil, Iraq CNN  — 

Just as Iraq prepares to turn the page on ISIS, a new chapter in its turbulent history appears to be unfolding. This time centering on the country’s largest ethnic minority: the Kurds and their push for independence.

On Monday, millions of Iraqi Kurds will head to the polls to vote in an advisory referendum on independence from Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, says the vote would give it a mandate to achieve independence from Iraq.

Voting is expected to begin at 8 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) and end at 6 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET) . First results should be known within 72 hours.

The culmination of nearly a century of Kurdish nationalist movements in various countries, Iraqi Kurds are expected to vote in favor of independence, while the international community is bracing itself for the possibility of a fresh round of violence in war-weary Iraq.

Kurdish people show their support for the upcoming referendum in Irbil on Thursday.

Numbering 30 million, Kurds make up a sizable minority in a number of Middle Eastern countries, comprising about 10% of the population in Syria, 19% in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, and nearly 10% in Iran. They have never had a nation state of their own.

Global players – heavily invested in the stability of a post-ISIS Middle East – have vocally opposed the vote. Kurdish fighters have been effective allies in the battle against the terror group in both northern Iraq and northern Syria.

But after working with the Iraqi government against ISIS, the KRG accuses Baghdad of breaking promises of “equality and partnership” with the Kurds, a charge Iraqi leaders deny.

“If we cannot become good partners within Iraq, then let us be great neighbors,” Kurdish President Masoud Barzani was quoted as saying after meet with the United Kingdom’s Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon.

“The Kurdistan region will happily negotiate with Baghdad after the referendum,” Barzani added.

Is there a risk of violence?

A man waves a Kurdish flag in central Kirkuk on the eve of the independence referendum.

Emotions are running high in the region, with independence rallies dominating the Kurdish landscape.

Last week, a curfew was imposed in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk following deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of the referendum. One man was killed.

Kirkuk – claimed by both the KRG and the Iraqi government – is one of several flashpoints due to its mix of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen and its economic importance.

An oil-rich city, Kirkuk’s absorption into a Kurdish independent state could divert its revenues away from Iraq’s cash-strapped central government. Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk province, has endorsed the referendum and come under fire from Baghdad. Iraq’s parliament has already voted to remove him from office.

The United Nations will not be part of the observer mission in Monday’s referendum but seven other yet-to-be-named international organizations will act as observers, the Kurdish Electoral Committee said in a news conference on Wednesday.

Iraq’s Supreme Court has ordered the referendum’s suspension.

Aside from Iraq, who opposes the referendum?

An employee from the Independent High Electoral Referendum Commission holds a voting ballot book at a polling station.

The US, the UK, Turkey and Iran as well as the United Nations have warned the KRG against the referendum.

“The referendum is a mistake and could detract from the essential campaign of defeating Daesh (ISIS),” the UK’s Defence Secretary Fallon told reporters in Baghdad last Monday.

In a statement on Thursday, the UN said the “members of the Security Council expressed concern over the potentially destabilizing impact of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s plans to unilaterally hold a referendum next week.”

On the same day, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran and Iraq expressed their “unequivocal opposition to the referendum” in a joint statement issued after a trilateral meeting in New York.

Both Turkey and Iran have sizeable Kurdish minorities and fear that secession in Iraq might galvanize nationalist movements in their countries.

The statement from the three countries said the referendum “puts Iraq’s hard-earned gains against Daesh [ISIS] under great risk,” and “runs the risk of provoking new conflicts in the region, that will prove difficult to contain.”

In nearby Syria, the Kurds have already carved out a proto-state amid the country’s bloody civil war, receiving US backing in their fight against ISIS. But Syria’s regime, which has recently made large strides in consolidating power in the country, has largely remained silent on the referendum in Iraq.

Is there any support from other countries in the region?

Only Israel has come out in support of Kurdish secession.

“(Israel) supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said in a statement to the media.

Why is this vote happening now?

Supporters wave flags ahead of Monday's vote.

The Kurdish independence vote comes as US-backed Syrian Kurds arrive at the end of a hard-fought battle against ISIS, ousting the extremist group from key territories.

In helping to eliminate a group that poses an immediate threat to global security, Kurdish leaders appear to have expected the backing of the international community in pursuing nationalist aspirations.

“We are disappointed in the international community, when all these nations are free and they deny us to be free,” the KRG’s head of foreign relations Falah Mustafa Bakir told CNN’s Becky Anderson.

“We have been asking for independence a while ago but we have been told that this is not the right time. And indeed, we don’t understand and we don’t know when is the right time.”

CNN’s Sarah Sirgany contributed to this report.