ERBIL, Kurdistan – The Kurdish people – the largest ethnic group in the world without a country – took a step toward statehood on Monday when they voted overwhelmingly for independence. Questions remain about what will happen in the Middle East after the referendum and how the Trump administration will respond to the yes vote.
After the vote, Kurds took to the streets to celebrate their claim to a country of their own.
Hours earlier, many came to the polls in traditional Kurdish dress and made it a family affair.
These Kurds are exercising their right to vote for independence officially for the first time. For many, it is one more step in a long history to fulfill their dream of a free and independent Kurdistan.
Even though 14-year-old Soma couldn't vote, she came with her family and expressed the hopes of the Kurdish people.
"If you're a Kurd this is a special day for you because you're going to be free from now on. I hope everybody votes for that because it's really special for me," she said.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith said, "This is a people achieving a dream they've had for a hundred years."
Galbraith compares the Kurds of today to Americans more than 200 years ago.
"They're not asking anything from the Americans except for the Americans to accept that the Kurds have the same right that the Americans had in 1776, only the Kurdish complaints against Iraq are much bigger than the American complaints against George the Third," he told CBN News.
The U.S. opposed the referendum. Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner says this State Department position is based on the one Iraqi policy that would keep Kurdistan under the influence of the Iranian-backed government in Baghdad.
"If we cause the Kurds to stay in the Republic of Iraq, one, we give them to the Iranians, and two, we complete the Shia arc that goes from Tehran, though Iran and through Syria into Lebanon and wrecks terror on Israel," he explained.
Galbraith says this policy puts the U.S. on the wrong side of the equation.
"To insist on the unity of Iraq under a government in Baghdad that is Iran's closest ally in the world – that created a militia which is commanded by General Qassem Suliman … the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is on Kurdistan borders and instead of siding with the Kurds, the Trump administration is siding with Iran and General Suliman," he said.
Galbraith and Garner say the Kurds could stop Iran's reach and be a haven for Christians.
"The place that has been protecting Iraq's Christians – the Christians of the Middle East – is Kurdistan."
"This is a sanctuary for Christians and if we continue this one Iraq policy they will have to leave because they will be persecuted once the Iranians take over," Garner said.
The Kurds face hostile neighbors opposed to their independence, but that doesn't stop Soma and others like her from dreaming of a free Kurdistan.
"It will be a really happy place – for Kurd people to be free. It will be special," she said.
Photos, CBN News, Jonathan Goff