Iran blocks flights to Iraq’s Kurdish region ahead of independence vote
IRBIL, Iraq — Iran blocked flights to and from the neighboring Iraqi region of Kurdistan on Sunday while holding military exercises on the border, the sharpest signals yet of its opposition to a Kurdish referendum on independence from Iraq planned for Monday.
Tehran’s extraordinary move to close its airspace came at the request of the Iraqi central government, Iranian media reported, and represents the kind of economic pressure Kurdish leaders can expect as they push ahead with a vote against the wishes of Baghdad and prominent members of the international community.
Officials of the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq have remained undeterred by the opposition from Baghdad, as well as neighboring Turkey and Iran, in addition to allies such as the United Statesand the European Union.
Iran’s military drills followed similar exercises by Turkey’s armed forces last week. Turkey, which is battling Kurdish insurgents on its soil, has called the referendum a threat to its national security.
International tensions and isolation did not dampen the festive mood in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, which has been awash with the colors of the Kurdish flag and has hosted massive rallies in support of independence. Cars have been adorned with pictures of Masoud Barzani, the Kurdistan region’s president and the leader of the independence push.
Barzani on Sunday sought to temper Kurdish expectations while reassuring international allies that the referendum is not designed “to draw the borders of Kurdistan” but to usher in serious talks with Baghdad on how to implement policies that would make them “good neighbors.”
“We are ready to give this as much time as needed,” he said at a news conference. “One year, two years or even longer in the hopes of becoming two good neighbors.”
During a competing speech that was televised live, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi angrily reiterated that the results of the referendum will not be recognized by his government and urged Kurds to question their leader’s motives, suggesting that the vote is a ploy to distract from their economic hardships and the bickering among Kurdish parties.
“We will do whatever is necessary to protect the unity of Iraq,” said Abadi, who has vowed to use force if unrest breaks out in disputed areas as a result of the referendum.
Hours after his speech, Abadi’s government issued an order that the Kurdish regional government hand over all airports and borders to the federal government and asked foreign countries to deal only with Baghdad on all transactions, including oil sales. The regional government independently exports about 600,000 barrels of oil a day, which has been a key point of conflict between the two governments. There was no response from Kurdish authorities to Baghdad’s order as of late Sunday.
If the vote is carried out, it will almost certainly result in economic sanctions from the Baghdad government and the threat of armed conflict. But Kurdish voters remain steadfast, saying the opposition to the referendum is serving only to strengthen their belief in their cause. They say they are prepared for any consequences, steeled by a history of oppression that has not broken them or blunted their desire for self-determination.
“Of course there might be some security and economic implications,” said Kovan Tahseen, a 30-year-old university lecturer in Irbil. “We can survive those. We have survived worse.”
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