Commenting on an almost unanimous vote for independence in an unofficial referendum held on 30 January, Masud Barzani said on Wednesday that "when the right time comes it will become a reality".

 

"Self-determination is the natural right of our people, and they have the right to express their desires,"  he added.

 

Barzani heads one of the two main Kurdish groups which control Iraq's northern Kurdish zone.

    

The KDP leader was speaking three days after more than 1.9 million Iraqi Kurds - some 95% of those asked - voted for independence in an informal survey conducted by volunteers.

   

Iraqi Kurds have long pushed for independence, but Turkey, Iran and Syria - all with substantial Kurdish minorities - oppose the establishment of Kurdish state on their borders.

 

Volunteers

   

The referendum was held on the day of Iraq's historic elections on Sunday. Its organisers surveyed Kurds as they emerged from polling stations across northern Iraq.

 

Kurds make up around 15% of
Iraq's population of 27 million

The volunteers handed out postcard-sized cards with two boxes printed on them next to two flags - one Kurdish and one Iraqi. The question 'What do you want?' was written at the top of the card and those polled were asked to tick one box.

  

By Wednesday, more than 2.1 million Kurdish votes had been counted, according to organisers who are still awaiting results from the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk.

   

Witnesses said some children filled them in and there was often no restriction on people taking more than one form.

 

Unofficial

   

Although the survey was unofficial and not monitored by any independent body, many Kurds said its results were proof of a groundswell of support for the eventual creation of an independent Kurdish state.

   

"We want to make sure that the Kurdish people do not suffer any more, and to show that Kurdish people have the will and ability to live in freedom," said Shamal Hawizy, a senior member of the Kurdistan Referendum Movement.

 

Bremer declined to meet Kurd
representatives last year

The movement, founded in October 2003, is funded through donations and assisted by Kurdish authorities, who paid for the referendum's cost of around $150,000.

   

Last year, the movement collected 1.7 million signatures calling for a petition demanding a similar referendum.

   

Paul Bremer, who was in charge of Iraq's provisional authority at the time, declined to meet Kurdish leaders to accept their petition and the referendum never took place.

   

Kurds make up around 15% of Iraq's population of 27 million. They are expected to emerge as a leading force when results are announced from Sunday's national vote.

 

Opposition

   

Most Iraqis oppose Kurdish secession. The international community says it is committed to establishing a unified but federal Iraq in which Kurds have a degree of autonomy.

   

"If you asked me whether in 10 years there will be an independent Kurdistan, I'd say yes"

Peter Galbraith,
former US diplomat

"The referendum is just a statement that a very large proportion of the Kurdish population up there wants independence," one western diplomat in Baghdad said.

   

"That feeling exists, and it would be silly to deny it, but Kurdish national leaders and Kurdish regional leaders understand that an independent Kurdish state now is not possible."

   

Others said the creation of such a state was only a matter of time.

   

"When you have a democracy it's almost impossible to hold people in a country that they hate," said Peter Galbraith, a visiting former US diplomat familiar with the region.

   

"If you asked me whether in 10 years there will be an independent Kurdistan, I'd say yes."