International flights to Erbil are suspended after independence vote

Official results showed 92.73 per cent of voters backed statehood in Monday's non-binding referendum, which Iraq's central government has rejected as illegal

Passengers flying to Arbil wait to check-in for their flight at Ataturk International airport in Istanbul on September 28, 2017.
All foreign flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Arbil will be suspended from the evening of September 29 on Baghdad's orders, its airport director said, following a controversial independence referendum. / AFP PHOTO / YASIN AKGUL
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All international flights to Erbil in Kurdish-held northern Iraq will be suspended on Friday evening at the request of Baghdad after a massive vote for independence by the Kurds was rejected by the central government.

Results showed that 92.73 per cent of voters backed statehood in Monday’s referendum, which has sparked international concern and angered Baghdad and its neighbours. The central government has repeatedly said the referendum was illegal.

The vote, although non-binding, has increased tensions between the Kurds and Baghdad as well as Turkey and Iran, both of which have a sizeable Kurdish population.

Repercussions were swift with airlines from the UAE, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar saying they will halt flights beginning Friday night in line with the ban.

“All international flights without exception to and from Erbil will stop from 6pm [local time] on Friday following a decision by the Iraqi cabinet and prime minister Haider Al Abadi,” airport director Talar Faiq Salih told Agence France-Presse.

At Erbil International Airport on Thursday, hundreds of people — most of whom are foreigners — waited to fly out before the ban took effect.

Murat Mutlar, a Turkish citizen, said the company he works for in Erbil ordered him to leave before Friday and as of Thursday he did not know if he will return.

"It depends on the situation here. If they make again all flights open … we will come back again and continue our work," he told The Associated Press.

Iraq’s Kurds faced the threat of growing isolation on Thursday not just from Baghdad but also from Ankara, which has threatened to cut exports to the region. Mr Abadi said Turkey has agreed to deal only with Baghdad on oil exports from the self-ruled Kurdish region.

While Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani said the vote would not lead to an immediate declaration of independence, it should instead open the door to negotiations, an approach Mr Abadi completely rejected.

"The referendum must be annulled and dialogue initiated in the framework of the constitution. We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum," Mr Abadi told lawmakers on Wednesday. "We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan under the constitution."

An overwhelming "yes" vote had been widely expected from the electorate of 4.58 million. Turnout was more than 72 per cent.

Pursuing a long-cherished dream of statehood, the Kurds went ahead with the referendum in defiance of widespread objections, including from the United Nations and United States.

It has raised fears of unrest and the possibility of a military confrontation involving the Kurds, who are key allies in internationally backed offensives against ISIL.

In a televised address late on Tuesday, Mr Barzani had urged Mr Abadi "not to close the door to dialogue because it is dialogue that will solve problems".

"We assure the international community of our willingness to engage in dialogue with Baghdad," he said, insisting the referendum was not meant "to delimit the border [between Kurdistan and Iraq], nor to impose it de facto".

Baghdad has steadily pushed back against the vote.

Lawmakers on Wednesday passed a resolution calling on Mr Abadi to "take all necessary measures to maintain Iraq's unity" including by deploying security forces to disputed areas.

The resolution also called for the closure of border posts with Turkey and Iran that are outside central government control.

Mr Abadi had said on Tuesday he plans to ban all international flights to and from Kurdistan in three days unless airports in its main cities Erbil and Sulaimaniyah were placed under his government's control.

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.

Monday's vote took place across the three northern provinces of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan — Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk — and in disputed border zones such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.