Arbil (Iraq) (AFP) – All foreign flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil will be suspended from Friday, officials said, as Baghdad increases pressure on the Kurds over this week’s independence referendum.
The move by the Iraqi central government marks the first major step taken in retaliation for Monday’s vote, which delivered a resounding 92.7 percent “yes”.
An extended suspension of flights would have significant consequences for the Kurds, who have turned Arbil into a regional transport hub that is home to a large international community.
The non-binding referendum in the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan and some disputed areas was held in defiance of Baghdad, which declared it illegal, and despite international objections.
Turkey, also home to a large Kurdish minority, is especially concerned and has threatened a series of measures to isolate the Iraqi Kurds.
Arbil airport director Talar Faiq Salih told AFP that all international flights to and from the city would stop from 6:00 pm (1500 GMT) on Friday following a decision by the Iraqi cabinet.
Regional carriers, including Turkish Airlines, EgyptAir and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, had already announced that they would be suspending their flights serving Iraqi Kurdistan at Baghdad’s request.
A civil aviation official in Baghdad told AFP the measure applied to the airports in Arbil and the region’s second-largest city Sulaimaniyah. Baghdad has demanded control of the airports be handed over to central authorities.
A decision on whether to also suspend domestic flights would be made after Friday, the official said.
Salih said she deeply regretted the decision, which she said would hamper the campaign against the Islamic State group in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, as well as the delivery of aid to those displaced by it.
– ‘Going to affect everyone’ –
“We have consulates, international staff, international companies, so it’s going to affect everyone,” Salih said. “We have a big international community here, so this is not only against Kurdish people.”
Kurdish forces have been key allies in US-backed offensives against IS in both Syria and Iraq, and Washington had urged Arbil to postpone the referendum in the interests of that battle.
Longtime Iraqi Kurd chief Massud Barzani went ahead anyway, and more than 3.3 million people — 72.6 percent of the electorate — flocked to polling stations to pursue a decades-old dream of statehood.
Barzani said the vote would not lead to an immediate declaration of independence, instead opening the door to negotiations, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has rejected any talks on the basis on the referendum.
On Wednesday, Abadi demanded the results of the vote be “annulled” and talks take place “in the framework of the constitution”.
Lawmakers on Wednesday passed a resolution calling on Abadi to “take all necessary measures to maintain Iraq’s unity” including by deploying security forces to disputed areas. A similar demand had been made on Monday but there have been no signs of any deployment.
Wednesday’s resolution also called for the closure of border posts with Turkey and Iran that are outside central government control.
Analysts have said it is unlikely Baghdad will take military action in response to the vote, especially as the top priority for its forces remains the battle against IS.
It could coordinate efforts with Turkey however to tighten the screws on the Kurds by cutting off trade routes, including for vital oil exports.
– Moves against oil exports –
Abadi’s office said in a statement on Thursday that Ankara had told Baghdad it would deal only with the Iraqi government on oil exports.
In a phone call with Abadi, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim offered support for “all Iraqi decisions to protect the country’s unity” including those “linked to limiting oil export (operations) to the Iraqi government,” the statement said.
Turkey fears the vote will inflame separatist feelings among its own Kurdish population and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had earlier threatened to block oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Iraqi Kurds export an average 600,000 barrels per day through a pipeline running through Turkey to Ceyhan on the Mediterranean coast.
Erdogan has also warned Ankara could close its land border with Iraqi Kurdistan and even suggested the possibility of a cross-border incursion similar to one Turkey carried out against IS and Kurdish fighters in Syria.