The Latest: Hundreds departing Irbil airport ahead of ban

AP Photo
The Associated Press

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — The Latest on developments in Iraq (all times local):

3 p.m.

Hundreds of passengers are filing through Irbil international airport in the hours ahead of a flight ban threatened by Baghdad following a controversial Kurdish independence referendum held this week.

Airport officials speaking on condition of anonymity say the volume of passengers is higher than usual but no additional flights were added to accommodate people attempting to depart the region. The ban was scheduled to kick in Friday evening.

Many of the hundreds of people traveling Friday afternoon were foreigners ordered to leave the region by the companies they work for.

Joao Gabriel Villar, a Brazilian doctor working for a non-governmental organization that helps people displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State group, says: “Of course we don’t want to leave.”

Villar says he hopes he’s able to return to finish his work.

— By Susannah George

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2:05 p.m.

Iraq’s top Shiite cleric has expressed opposition to the vote in an independence referendum held this week in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani says it “is an attempt to divide Iraq and take its northern part by setting up an independent state.”

Al-Sistani’s comments were the first by the top Shiite cleric since Monday’s referendum.

In a statement read in the Shiite holy city of Karbala by cleric Ahmad al-Safi during Friday prayers, al-Sistani said all parties in Iraq should abide by the Iraqi constitution.

Al-Sistani warned that such “unilateral steps” toward dividing Iraq will lead to internal and external reactions that will have consequences on our “dear Kurdish citizens and could have more dangerous repercussion.”

He called on Kurdish officials to return to the constitution.

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9:15 a.m.

An Iraqi government order that international airlines halt all flights in and out of the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah will kick in Friday evening local time.

The move is due to tensions over an independence referendum held this week in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories.

Iraq’s Transport Ministry ordered international airlines to halt service to Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city.

Regional airlines have said they will honor the flight ban.

The nonbinding referendum — in which the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq — was billed by Kurdish leaders as an exercise in self-determination. The idea of an independent state has been central to Kurdish politics for decades.

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