* Kurds in traditional dress sing and dance at polling stations
* Opposition to vote simmers among Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk
* Arab, Turkmen areas appeared to have lower voter turnout
By Raya Jalabi
KIRKUK, Iraq Sept 25 (Reuters) - Singing and dancing and draped with Kurdish flags, Kirkuk’s Kurds flocked to polling stations of the ethnically-mixed city on Monday to vote to be independent from Iraq.
Opposition to the vote has been simmering among the Arabs and Turkmen who live alongside the Kurds in the northern Iraqi city and there had been rumours that the vote would not take place in mixed areas.
Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani’s decision to include it in the independence referendum, was widely seen as a move to consolidate Kurdish control there.
Voter turnout appeared to be much higher among Kurds in Kirkuk which both the central government of Baghdad and the semi-autonomous KRG think they should control.
The vote is expected to deliver a comfortable “yes” for independence, but is not binding. There have been international warnings that it could ignite more regional conflict.
At the Shorja polling station in a Kurdish neighbourhood, one of two that the media was allowed to photograph and freely observe, jubilant Kurds of all ages arrived to vote in traditional dress.
“Today is the birthday of Kurdistan,” said Abu Bakr, an older Kurdish man. “Today is a holiday, a festival.”
Men in grey or light brown trousers with matching vests wand women in long robes in vivid colours and headscarves, queued up at the crowded polling station. They showed off their ink-stained fingers, before heading outside to join the throng of people singing and dancing.
People brought their families, eager to include their children in a historic moment. A father handed his ballot to his infant daughter, who dropped it into the box herself.
“Independence is our dream and our right,” said Hajal Ahmed Hussein. “We deserve a happy life.”
On Sunday night, Governor Najmaddin Kareem spoke at a hastily organised press conference, to reassure the residents of his city that the voting would happen as planned.
This followed a feverish 24 hours of rumours that the voting would be halted in Kirkuk and the other ethnically mixed cities, towns and villages. The 244 ballot boxes were distributed around the city late on Sunday night, several days after they arrived.
At least one Kurd was killed in a pre-referendum clash, and tensions continue to run high.
Kareem called on voters of all ethnicities and religions in Kirkuk to vote, saying “Kirkuk’s future can only be decided by the people of Kirkuk.”
Nechirvan Barzani, KRG’s prime minister, said the Iraqi flag would continue to fly in Kirkuk after the referendum results.
However, polling stations across Arab and Turkmen areas in the city were far less crowded than in Kurdish areas. Normally bustling shopping districts in non-Kurdish areas were shuttered, storefronts locked and with barely anyone in sight.
In the Shi’ite Turkmen neighbourhood of Tis’een, the streets were largely empty, save a few black flags fluttering in the wind, marking the sombre month of Muharram observed by Shi’ite Muslims.
In nearby Kindi, another Turkmen neighbourhood, Kurdish electoral commission officials at one polling station told Reuters that 800 of its 3,018 registered voters had cast their ballots by midday, including “many” Arabs from the area abutting the Governorate building, known as Al Muhafatha.
But an Arab resident of the area said neither he, nor any of his neighbours voted on Monday.
“We want Kirkuk to stay one country, under one capital, Baghdad,” said Abu Dumour whose family were some of the original Arab residents of Kirkuk.
“This referendum will split our city.”
At four polling stations in Arab and Turkmen neighbourhoods, Reuters reporters saw mostly Kurdish voters, wearing their traditional costumes arrive in groups to vote. Several buses were seen outside these polling stations.
Kurdish electoral commission officials at all four polling stations, said several hundred people had voted by midday, out of approximately 3,000 registered.
Two Christian men from Baghdad were seen leaving a polling station in a Turkmen area, amid dozens of Kurds. The pair said they both voted for an independent Kurdish state, because they want Kirkuk to be part of the Kurdish region.
“We haven’t gone back to Baghdad in 10 years because we’re scared of them,” said Abu Suzanne. “Let us join the Kurdish state, they will take care of us Christians.”
Polling stations will close at 6pm. (Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud; editing by Anna Willard)