IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Tuesday ordered the northern Kurdish region to hand over control of its airports to federal authorities or face a flight ban, signaling a tough response to a landmark Kurdish independence referendum held the day before.
The Iraqi Kurdish leadership billed Monday’s vote as an exercise in self-determination, but the Iraqi government is strongly opposed to any redrawing of its borders, and Turkey and Iran fear the move will embolden their own Kurdish populations.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ultimatum came the day after the vote and ahead of the release of official results. He said the ban would exclude humanitarian and other “urgent” flights.
Regional authorities in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish north put the turnout at over 70 percent, but many voters reported irregularities, including cases of individuals voting multiple times and without proper registration.
Many expect a resounding “yes” vote when the official results are released, most likely on Wednesday, according to the Kurdish electoral commission.
For decades, Kurdish politics have hinged on dreams of an independent Kurdish state. When colonial powers drew the map of the Middle East after World War I, the Kurds, who now number around 30 million, were divided among Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq.
The vote has already ramped up regional tensions.
Iraqi troops began joint military exercises with Turkey along the border. Fearing the vote could be used to redraw Iraq’s borders, taking a sizeable part of the country’s oil wealth with it, al-Abadi has called the referendum an act of “sedition” that “escalated the ethnic and sectarian tension” across the country.
In Iran, thousands of Kurds poured into the streets in the cities of Baneh, Saghez and Sanandaj on Monday night. Footage shared online by Iranian Kurds showed demonstrators waving lit mobile phones in the air and chanting their support into the night. Some footage also showed Iranian police officers assembling nearby or watching the demonstrators.
Iranian state television on Tuesday acknowledged the rallies, a rarity in the Islamic Republic. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and its regular army have been running military exercises near the border with Iraq’s Kurdish region in a sign of Tehran’s displeasure at the Kurdish referendum.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated on Tuesday that his country is considering all options, ranging from military intervention to economic sanctions against Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Erdogan said, however, that he hopes the Iraqi Kurdish leadership will abandon aims of creating a separate state and not force Turkey into enforcing sanctions.
“I hope the northern Iraqi administration gathers itself together and abandons this adventure with a dark ending,” Erdogan said, adding that the landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region would not be able to survive without Turkey’s support in helping export its oil.
“The moment we shut the valve it’s finished for them,” Erdogan said, referring to a pipeline through Turkey. The Turkish leader said no country other than Israel supports the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence, which he described as “invalid” and “fraudulent.” He said attempts by Kurds to form an independent state are doomed to fail.
The United States and United Nations both opposed the referendum, describing it as a unilateral and potentially destabilizing move that could detract from the war Iraqi and Kurdish forces are waging against the Islamic State group.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the U.S. wouldn’t alter its “historic relationship” with Iraq’s Kurds, but the referendum would increase hardships for them. She said IS and other extremists are hoping to “exploit instability and discord.”
Statements from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed regret that the vote was held and said issues between Iraq’s federal government and Kurdish region should be resolved through dialogue.
Kurdish electoral commission spokesman Sherwan Zerar put the turnout at about 3.3 million of the eligible 4.5 million residents.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Balint Szlanko in Irbil, Iraq and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.