Baghdad: Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence, risking retaliation from neighbours as well as the government in Baghdad who have pledged to do whatever it takes to prevent secession. 

More than 92 per cent voted in favour of statehood, the Kurdistan High Election Committee said in Arbil on Wednesday.

Airlines from Turkey as well as Lebanon, Egypt and Royal Jordanian said on Wednessay they will suspend operations to and from Iraq’s Kurdistan region following Baghdad’s threat to ban flights after the region’s independence vote.

The Kurdistan Regional Government rejected an Iraqi central government ultimatum to hand control of its international airports to Baghdad.

Baghdad piled pressure on the Kurds yesterday, demanding they cancel the vote outcome while parliament urged the Iraqi central government to send troops to take control of vital oil fields held by Kurdish forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has hinted he may halt Kurdish oil exports via a pipeline to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

Speaking to Gulf News on Wednesday, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Hoshiyar Zebari, who is a close adviser to Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani, said: “The Kurdish people have experienced many sanctions and embargoes in the past, and in my opinion, they will bear this one as well.”

The Kurdish people will survive recent regional punitive measures targeting the Kurdistan Regional Government, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Wednessday.

The KRG has come under increased regional and international pressure following a referendum on independence held on Monday.

After the Monday vote, Iran closed its borders with Kurdistan and Turkey threatened to cut all land links, including cutting oil exports from northern Iraq. 
In addition, Baghdad demanded the Kurds hand over control of airports and borders in northern Iraq to the federal government. 

The three parties threatened more economic sanctions and military actions.  
Speaking to Gulf News yesterday, Zebari, who is a close adviser to Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani, said:  “The Kurdish people have experienced many sanctions and embargoes in the past, and in my opinion, they will bear this one as well.

“We will give them [central government in Baghdad] some time to absorb the shock, but we insist on dialogue and we are prepared for it,” he responded to a question on Baghdad’s position. 

Commenting on Baghdad’s demands on handing over control borders and airports in Kurdistan, Zebari told Gulf News the Iraqi constitution detailed the responsibilities of federal and regional governments, as well as the joint ones. 
“This is why we went on and held the referendum. It is because they didn’t respect the constitution.”

He stressed the door will continue to be open for dialogue with the central government in Baghdad. 

“In my opinion, the way to defuse the tension is [only] through dialogue,” he said.    “The high voter turnout sent an important message to Iraq’s neighbours that this is what the Kurdish people want,” Zebari said, denying statements of some Kurdish officials of being forced to vote in the referendum, and elections fraud.    

The vote, he said, would not automatically trigger independence.

‘Annul vote’

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi demanded yesterday that this week’s vote on independence for the autonomous Kurdish region be annulled, as tensions soared between the Kurds and Baghdad.
“We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum,” Al Abadi said.

“We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan under the constitution,” he said.

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.
Al 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.

The Kurdish Regional Government rejected the demand.
Iraqi authorities also urged international carriers to stop flying to Arbil. Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines and EgyptAir both said yesterday 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 Daesh and Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Delegation to Iran

Meanwhile, a top ranking delegation from Iraq’s armed forces headed to neighbouring Iran yesterday “to coordinate military efforts”, according to a statement from the Iraqi military.

Iran and Turkey also oppose any move towards Kurdish secession and their armies have started joint drills near their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days. Iraq and Turkey have also held joint military drills.