(MENAFN- AzerNews) By Kamila Aliyeva
Voting has started in a controversial referendum on the secession of northern Iraq's Kurdish region amid regional and international opposition to the referendum.
The September 25 independence referendum is taking place in areas under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
The KRG Independent High Electoral Commission announced that over 5 million people are expected to vote in the ballot, which is boycotted by Turkmens and Arabs.
Iraq's central government has threatened to intervene militarily if the vote leads to violence, while Turkey, the U.S., Iran and the UN have warned that the vote would distract from operations against Daesh and lead to greater instability in the region.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry has said that results of the referendum are "null and void".
'The referendum… in the KRG, is null and void in terms of its consequences, the statement reads. 'We do not recognize this initiative, which lacks legal basis and legitimacy with regard to the international law and the Iraqi constitution.
The Foreign Ministry added that the National Security Council has already outlined the sanctions to be imposed on the Kurdish region in the event of a vote for independence, which were later agreed by the Cabinet.
'We stress one more time that we will take every measure that emanates from the international law and from the authority granted by the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, in the event that some radical elements and terrorists, which may seek to exploit the circumstances that will emerge following the referendum, attempt to carry out acts that target our national security.
The ministry also extended a travel ban for Turkish citizens to Iraq's Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah provinces.
Meanwhile, mass protests are underway in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other major cities of Turkey against the referendum in Kurdistan, Turkish media outlets reported.
Protest actions against the referendum also take place in such Turkish provinces as Aydin and Osmaniye.
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim previously emphasized that a planned independence referendum in northern Iraq as "illegitimate".
"Any status change, any new formation on the southern frontiers of Turkey will never be tolerated," Yildirim said.
The head of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, previously threatened war if the central government in Baghdad interferes with the holding of the referendum.
Barzani later added that a 'Yes vote would not result in an automatic declaration of independence but would simply lead to further negotiations with Baghdad.
Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East although they have never obtained a permanent nation state. In Iraq they make up an estimated 15-20 percent of the population of 37 million. Kurds acquired autonomy following the 1991 Gulf War.
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