06202018What's Hot:

Iraq Escalates Dispute With Kurds, Threatening Military Action

Iraq has called the vote illegal and has vowed to ignore the results. The vote has also provoked the Kurdish region’s two powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

All three countries have been conducting military exercises near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan this week.

Iraqi troops, including Shiite Muslim militias incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces, are already in the Kirkuk area. While the city is controlled by Kurdish forces, Iraqi troops are fighting the Islamic State as part of an American-led coalition about 40 miles southwest of the city.

Photo

Iraq ordered Kurdish authorities to surrender control of the region’s two international airports, including the one in Erbil, or face a shutdown of all international flights, starting Friday. Credit Chris Mcgrath/Getty Images

Kurdish troops known as pesh merga seized Kirkuk in 2014, when the Iraqi Army fled an assault by militants there.

The inclusion of Kirkuk and other disputed areas in the referendum enraged the Iraqi government, which interpreted the move as a land grab. Baghdad has accused the Kurds of illegally selling Iraqi oil from the Kirkuk oil fields through a pipeline that runs into Turkey.

The Kurdish independence challenge is the latest crisis to rock Iraq in recent years. The country was controlled by Saddam Hussein’s regime until 2003, when the American invasion helped set off a brutal civil war and years of wrenching upheaval.

Just three years ago, Iraq lost a third of its territory to Islamic State militants. Now that the Islamic State is finally being driven out, Iraq is faced with losing a third of its territory and access to areas with oil and natural gas if Kurdistan breaks away.

Beyond the threats of military action, Iraqi authorities have struggled to come up with any meaningful punishment for the Kurds for carrying out the referendum. But with its move to shut down flights to the landlocked region, Iraq seems to have found a weak point.

Iraqi aviation authorities notified foreign airlines on Wednesday that it would cancel all permits to land and take off from two international airports in the Kurdish region as of Friday afternoon. The action followed an ultimatum by Prime Minister Abadi on Tuesday for Kurdistan to surrender control of its two international airports or face a shutdown of international flights.

The Kurdish Regional Government said Wednesday that it would refuse to hand over the airports. The region’s transportation minister, Mawlud Murad, called the Iraqi ultimatum “political and illegal.” He said the airports were critical to the American-led coalition’s fight against Islamic State militants.

Kurdish officials had planned to send a delegation to Baghdad on Wednesday to discuss the issue, but the offer was rebuffed.

On Wednesday night, Mr. Murad said that the Kurdish government had agreed to hold talks with Iraq about placing Iraqi government observers at its airports.

Photo

People celebrated on the streets of Erbil after the referendum results were announced. Credit Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

There was no immediate public response from the Iraqi government, but Mr. Abadi, speaking to Parliament earlier, said Iraq would not negotiate with the Kurds unless they annulled the results of the vote.

He said he had warned the Kurds “of the consequences of the crisis with Kurdistan.”

“The preservation of the security of the citizens of the country is our priority,” he added.

At least six airlines — three Turkish companies, the Lebanese carrier Middle East Airlines, Royal Jordanian and Egypt Air — started notifying passengers on Wednesday that they were canceling regularly scheduled flights from the airports in Erbil and Sulaimaniya.

Baghdad can make good on its threat because the Iraqi civil aviation authority oversees all airports in the country, including the two international airports in the Kurdish region.

The threat to cancel landing and takeoff permits would force international airlines to cancel flights to those airports because insurance risks would be too high, according to Robert W. Mann Jr., a former airline executive who is now an industry consultant.

“The issue turns on which entity controls Kurdish region airspace and airports,” Mr. Mann said. “Unless and until the autonomous region is given that control, Iraq controls and can ban, blockade or embargo air service to airports under its control, much as Qatari airports have been embargoed or blockaded by nearby nations. Faced with such a restriction, most commercial airlines would comply, in part due to warnings by their insurers.”

The Turkish Consulate in Erbil said that Turkish airlines were working to increase their seat capacity in an effort to get all passengers out of the Kurdish areas before the flight ban took effect on Friday afternoon.

Without international flights, getting in or out of Kurdistan would require going through Turkey, Iran, Syria or Iraq, where there are also threats of a blockade.

The Iraqi Parliament urged the government on Wednesday to close off its land border with Kurdistan.

For years, the Kurdish authorities in Erbil have controlled their own borders with Turkey and Syria. Mr. Abadi has demanded that all borders return to full Iraqi central government control by Friday.

Photo

A Turkish and Iraqi joint military exercise in Turkey near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan. Credit Ilyas Akengin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Turkey’s customs minister, in remarks carried by Turkish state television, said that the main land border crossing between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish region remained open, although he would not say for how long that would remain the case.

Turkey is the largest trade partner with Iraqi Kurdistan, and the road border is used for much of the cargo trade. Turkey also is the transit country for the oil pumped out of areas controlled by the Kurdish authorities to the world market.

Turkey and Iran have opposed the referendum and any moves toward Kurdish independence, fearing unrest by their own Kurdish minorities.

Kurdish authorities in Erbil announced on Wednesday that 92.7 percent of those who went to the polls on Monday had voted for Kurdish leaders to seek independence. About 72 percent of 4.6 million registered voters cast ballots, with about 2.9 million voting yes to independence and about 224,000 voting no, the Kurdish Independent High Electoral Referendum Commission reported.

The referendum does not automatically trigger a declaration of independence but sets in motion a series of moves toward the establishment of a Kurdish state. The most important one of those may be negotiations of a separation with Iraq, which Iraq has refused.

American officials opposed the vote because they feared it would destabilize Iraq, stir ethnic conflict and undermine the American-led coalition.

Kurdish pesh merga fighters have played a central role in the coalition’s operations against the Islamic State militants, fighting alongside Iraqi Army units.

The Kurdish region’s president, Massoud Barzani, pushed for the referendum in hopes of obtaining a strong public mandate for eventual independence that he could use to begin negotiations with Baghdad.

Kurds have been celebrating since Monday evening, setting off fireworks, honking horns and affixing flapping red, white and green Kurdish flags to their automobiles. Government billboards promoting Monday’s independence vote were still in place on Wednesday.

Source: NYT > World

comments powered by HyperComments

More on the topic