But some 250 miles south, in a working-class corner of Baghdad’s sprawl, the vote has quietly provoked a crisis of identity.
Akd al-Akrad, or Quarter of the Kurds, is a neighborhood in central Baghdad where about 200 Kurdish families have lived for generations. Some in this enclave of winding alleys and closely built homes say their roots there are as old as the capital itself.
Kurds here say that for the first time in decades, they are being forced to reckon with their dual identities. Most speak Arabic with the distinct accent of the capital and have never been to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north. And yet, a resurgent Arab Iraqi nationalism has placed an uncomfortable spotlight on their ethnicity within the walls of their traditional haven.
“We are all here terrified of what might happen to us because of the referendum,” said 66-year-old Sabah Makki, a retired teacher, who was born and raised in the district. He said he worries that Arabs, the overwhelming majority of Baghdad’s residents, will see the Kurds as easy targets if the political or military standoff worsens.
Makki and others said their fears range from the mundane to the existential. Many Kurds work in Iraq’s vast public-service sector or live on municipal pensions and are now more worried than usual about discrimination. In the worst case, they fret about being kicked out of their homes or attacked by any of the myriad armed militias that informally control certain precincts of the capital city.
“Most of the Kurds in this area have lived their whole life in Baghdad,” Makki said. “We lived, studied and worked here, and we consider ourselves Iraqi Kurds, not just only Kurds.”
Mohammed Abdullah, a 54-year-old businessman has watched uneasily as the aftermath of the referendum escalated from a political war of words to an actual military incursion by Iraqi forces into places claimed by the Kurds, like the city of Kirkuk.
Sensing the matter won’t end peacefully, he has made preparations to move his family to Jordan if Iraqi anger over the referendum reaches his neighborhood.
“Kurds are minorities here in Baghdad. We don’t have anyone to protect us,” he said. “With this wave of anger about the referendum, we are the ones who will be hurt.”
Akd al-Akrad doesn’t hide its Kurdish character. Items sold in the main shopping area sprawl across the sidewalks and spill into the street, with food carts advertising Kurdish specialty grilled meats. Many of the awnings on restaurants and cafes proudly call out the names of their owners with the honorific “Kaka” — brother in Kurdish.
Inside, walls are decorated with old portraits of Kurdish and Arab poets. On one wall, a fading black-and-white picture of a former Iraqi president, Abdul-Karim Qassim, hangs next to one of Jalal Talabani, the recently deceased Kurdish politician who served as president of Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. In the photo, he is a young rebel leader, in the traditional uniform of the peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters who staged multiple uprisings against successive Iraqi strongmen.
Over dominoes and tea, Kurds have debated and discussed the wisdom of the referendum effort, forcing themselves into difficult conversations about what being Kurdish and Iraqi means to them.
“We are living hard days between the dream of having a state for us as Kurds and between an unknown future waiting for us as Kurds living in Baghdad,” said Saman Ali, a 50-year-old grocer. “It’s very complicated, because Kurdish people deserve a country for their own.”
Some, particularly young people, bitterly blamed the leadership of the Kurdish region for putting them in a precarious position in Baghdad, the only city they consider home.
Taha Abbas, a 23-year-old university student, said his mother tongue is Arabic and that Kurds in Irbil mock his accent when he speaks Kurdish. In Baghdad, his identification card says he is Kurdish, which he said makes him a “second-class citizen.”
“I am lost between the two identities without knowing to which one I belong to,” he said. “With everything that is happening right now, I'll find myself in a position of having to choose one.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to assure Iraq’s Kurds that they are not the enemy, even as Iraqi forces backed by Shiite militias move into areas of the north with large Kurdish populations.
“I’m very proud that Iraqi society stayed diversified by different people. This is our power, this is our heritage, this is what we are. We should protect it and keep it,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post last week. “It is not a shame for their country if you are different. It is a shame if you try to oppress the other side who are in the minority to behave like the majority. That is not right.”
Abbas is not convinced that Abadi’s conciliatory words will trickle through Iraq’s deeply divided society.
“The best solution would be going to another country, away from this conflict, and start over,” he said.
But 70-year-old Faiq Hammad, who makes a living hauling people’s belongings in his wooden cart, was sanguine.
He remembers the worst days between Iraq’s government and the Kurds, including a bloody uprising against Saddam Hussein that was put down with poison gas in 1988. As many as 5,000 Kurds were killed.
“What’s happening now is just a storm and it will pass,” Hammad said, wearing the traditional Kurdish outfit of baggy pants and a high-waisted sash. “Kurdistan and Baghdad are brothers. They always have been and always will be.”