Kalak: "For the sake of the sacrifices and blood of the martyrs, let's all say yes for Kurdistan independence," reads a large billboard in the centre of Kalak, a small town in Iraq's northern Kurdish region.
"Independence is not given, it's taken!" reads another banner hanging below a cluster of red, green, yellow and white Kurdish flags.
Iraq's Kurds are set to vote tomorrow in a referendum on support for independence that has stirred fears of instability across the region as the war against the Islamic State group winds down.
The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.
The United States and the United Nations have condemned the referendum. Turkey, which is battling its own Kurdish insurgency, has threatened to use military force to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state, and Baghdad has warned it will respond militarily to any violence resulting from the vote.
Initial results from the poll are expected on Tuesday, with the official results announced later in the week.
Denied independence when colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds form a sizable minority in Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq. They have long been at odds with the Baghdad government over the sharing of oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories like the city of Kirkuk, which are expected to take part in the vote.
"There are pressures on us to postpone, to engage in dialogue with Baghdad, but we will not go back to a failed experiment," Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, said to roars of applause at a rally of tens of thousands in Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, on Friday evening. But beneath the sea of flag-waving, the Kurdish region continues to be plagued by endemic corruption and economic decline.
Among the portraits on Kalak's main street is that of Amen Jadr Mahmoud's 18-year-old son, Gaylan, one of the more than 1,500 Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, killed in the fight against the Islamic State group.
"His death was noble, he died fighting for Kurdistan," Mahmoud said.
But even Mahmoud, a die-hard nationalist who lost four other relatives to fighting with Iraqi government forces decades earlier, has misgivings about the Kurdish region's political leadership. "If we have a state then we will build institutions that will let us change the faces of the main parties," he said.
"Once we have a state we can get rid of them or at least prevent them from stealing so much."
The Kurds have been a close American ally for decades, and the first US airstrikes in the campaign against Islamic State were launched to protect Irbil. Kurdish forces later regrouped and played a major role in driving the extremists from much of northern Iraq, including Mosul, the country's second-largest city.
"The Kurdish contribution to the Islamic State fight, it can't be overstated," said US Army Col Charles Costanza, a commander at a coalition base just outside Irbil, using another acronym for the extremist group. "We couldn't have done Mosul without the Kurds."
But the US has long been opposed to Kurdish moves toward independence, fearing it could lead to the breakup of Iraq and bring even more instability to an already volatile Middle East.
Mahmoud and other Kurds who support independence view the international opposition as a betrayal.
"My son was fighting Daesh on behalf of the entire world," said Mahmoud, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State. "And now the international community is ignoring us."
The Kurds' sense of sacrifice and betrayal is rooted in decades of war and oppression, in which they repeatedly rose up against the Baghdad government and were often brutally repressed.
During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, the Kurds sided with Iran against Saddam Hussein, who punished them with a scorched-earth campaign involving chemical weapons that killed an estimated 50,000 people.
A no-fly zone imposed by the US in the early 1990s largely halted the killings and allowed the Kurds to develop de facto autonomy, which was formalised after the 2003 US-led invasion.
Meanwhile, AFP reported that Iran has blocked all flights to and from Iraq's Kurdistan at the request of Baghdad, a day before the autonomous region holds an independence referendum that Tehran opposes.
"At the request of the central government of Iraq, all flights from Iran to Sulaymaniyah and Arbil, as well as all flights through our airspace originating from the Kurdistan region, have been stopped," official news agency IRNA quoted the spokesman for the Supreme National Security Council, Keivan Khosravi, as saying.
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Updated Date: Sep 24, 2017 19:14:55 IST