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.“The vote was a historic and strategic mistake by the Kurdish leadership,” Al-Abadi said during a press conference in Baghdad. “I will not give up on the unity of Iraq, that is my national and constitutional duty.”
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 tomorrow, 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.
After polls closed in Iraq’s Kurdish region yesterday night, the skies above Irbil filled with fireworks and families flocked to the center of town to celebrate. Across the border thousands of Iranian Kurds held rallies in support.
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 yesterday 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.