Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced Tuesday via Twitter that Baghdad would seek full control of all airports, land crossings, and oil revenues under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) by Friday, threatening to seize them if Erbil does not comply with the order.
The move is a response to the Kurds’ overwhelming “yes” vote to secede from Iraq on Monday in a referendum the Iraqi government asserts is illegal. Nations with significant Kurdish populations, like Iran and Turkey, have come out in support of Baghdad, while Israel stands as Kurdistan’s lone neighbor supporting their campaign for sovereignty.
The KRG is located in the nation’s north and its military, the Peshmerga, have played a key role in combating the Islamic State.
“Iraq will suspend international flights to [and] from the Kurdistan region if this order is not implemented,” Abadi warned.
Al Jazeera notes that such a suspension would not apply to domestic flights, as the intent of the measure is to flex the muscles of a sovereign Iraq and take full control of who enters and exits Kurdistan, treating it as an Iraqi state. Similarly, those in Kurdish territory will continue to be allowed to travel within Iraq but, if the KRG does not dismiss the referendum by Friday, they will not be able to enter or exit Kurdistan outside of entering Iraq without Baghdad’s approval.
Some nations have preempted Abadi’s call for an end to international flights to Kurdistan. Iran, for example, has already implemented a ban on international flights to and from the territory. Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines (MEA) and EgyptAir will implement a similar embargo beginning Friday to comply with Abadi’s wishes.
Kurdish officials have responded to the move with confusion, urging Abadi to explain what he would like the KRG to do to prevent the imposition of an international air embargo. “We want more clarifications from the Iraqi government on its demand to hand them the two airports, because we don’t understand how to give them the two airports, when they are already subject to the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority,” Kurdish Transport Minister Mawloud Bawah Murad said, noting that the Erbil and Sulaimaniyah airports in Kurdistan were built with Kurdish, not Iraqi, funding.Nechirvan Barzani, the premier of Kurdistan, accused Abadi of “the collective punishment of all the people of Kurdistan” and compared Abadi to Saddam Hussein’s Revolutionary Command Council.” Hussein killed tens of thousands of Kurds in chemical attacks later deemed genocide by an Iraqi court. He invited Abadi to visit the airports in question, adding, “we have nothing to hide.”
Masoud Barzani, the president of Kurdistan, has requested that Abadi engage in dialogue with the KRG on how to divorce the two territories most painlessly. Following the execution of the Kurdistan referendum, however, Abadi declared Monday that he would not “discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” despite the fact that Kurdish officials have insisted that they will not immediately attempt to exit Iraq but instead use the referendum as a mandate to begin the process of establishing a sovereign nation. In his speech Monday, Abadi claimed “the economic and financial problems the region is suffering from are the result of corruption and mis-administration.”
While the U.S. State Department has opposed the referendum, spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters Tuesday that the flight ban would “not be an example of engaging constructively” and encouraged Abadi and the KRG to “come together and have some conversation and be able to move things forward, but do it in a constructive fashion.”