Baghdad (AFP) – Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded Wednesday that this week’s vote on independence for the autonomous Kurdish region be annulled, as tensions soared between the Kurds and Baghdad.
The result of Monday’s non-binding referendum had not yet been announced, but an overwhelming “yes” vote was widely expected.
Longtime Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani has said the vote will not lead to an immediate declaration of independence and should instead open the door to negotiations.
But Abadi — who rejected the referendum as illegal — told lawmakers on Wednesday there was no question of using its results as the basis for talks.
“The referendum must be annulled and dialogue initiated in the framework of the constitution. We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum,” Abadi said.
“We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan under the constitution,” he said.
Pressure has been mounting on the Kurds since the vote, not just from Baghdad but also from Ankara, with Turkey threatening a range of measures including cutting off key export routes for the region.
Pursuing a long-cherished dream of statehood, the Kurds went ahead with the referendum in defiance of widespread objections, including from the United Nations and United States.
It has raised fears of unrest and the possibility of a military confrontation involving the Kurds, who are key allies in internationally backed offensives against the jihadists of the Islamic State group.
In a televised address late on Tuesday, Barzani had urged Abadi “not to close the door to dialogue because it is dialogue that will solve problems”.
“We assure the international community of our willingness to engage in dialogue with Baghdad,” he said, insisting the referendum was not meant “to delimit the border (between Kurdistan and Iraq), nor to impose it de facto.”
– Airlines cancel flights –
Baghdad has steadily pushed back against the vote.
Lawmakers passed a resolution Monday to send troops to disputed areas where the referendum took place, but there have been no signs of a deployment yet.
Abadi said Tuesday he would ban all international flights to and from Kurdistan in three days unless airports in its main cities Arbil and Sulaimaniyah were placed under his government’s control.
Iraqi authorities are also reported to have urged international carriers to stop flying to the regional capital Arbil.
Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines and EgyptAir both said Wednesday they would halt flights to Arbil this week at the request of Baghdad.
Turkey fears the vote will stoke the separatist ambitions of its own sizeable Kurdish minority and on Tuesday President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Iraq’s Kurds risked sparking an “ethnic war”.
“If Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war,” he said.
Erdogan had earlier warned that Turkey would shut its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to block oil exports from the region through Turkey.
Erdogan even suggested the possibility of a cross-border incursion similar to the one Turkey carried out against IS and Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Monday’s vote took place across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan — Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk — and in disputed border zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
Officials reported that turnout for the referendum was 72 percent, with 3.3 million of the 4.58 million registered voters taking part.
Opponents have accused Barzani of seeking to empower himself through the vote, and said he should have accepted a UN-backed plan to postpone the referendum in favour of negotiations with Baghdad.
Analysts say that despite their threats both Baghdad and Ankara are proceeding cautiously in reacting to the vote, wary of sparking a serious confrontation with the Kurds that would further destabilise an already volatile region.
Left without a state of their own when the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, the Kurds see themselves as the world’s largest stateless people.
The non-Arab ethnic group of between 25 and 35 million is spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.