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Iraqi PM, Kurdish leader trade barbs over independence vote

Barzani calls on federal government ‘not to close the door to dialogue,’ as Iraq’s premier threatens air embargo on Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani arrives to cast his vote in the Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station near Irbil, on September 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmed Deeb)
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani arrives to cast his vote in the Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station near Irbil, on September 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ahmed Deeb)

IRBIL, Iraq (AFP) — Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi engaged in a war of words Tuesday, a day after the Kurds staged an independence referendum in their autonomous region.

Abadi, a staunch opponent of the Kurdish move, said he would not negotiate on the back of the referendum result — expected to be a resounding “yes.”

But in Kurdish regional capital Irbil, Barzani in a televised address urged the Iraqi premier “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.

“The referendum is not to delimit the border (between Kurdistan and Iraq), nor to impose it de facto,” Barzani added.

The Kurdish referendum went ahead despite both Iraqi and international opposition.

The vote is non-binding and will not lead automatically to independence, but is seen by the Kurds as a major step towards a long-cherished dream of statehood.

In Baghdad, Abadi was not in a negotiating mood.

He said he would ban “international flights to and from Kurdistan” in three days, unless its two airports at Irbil and Sulaimaniyah there were placed under his government’s control.

Abadi stressed that negotiations on the back of the referendum result were out of the question.

“We will not abandon the unity and sovereignty of Iraq because this is a national duty,” he said.

“The government will impose its authority in accordance with the constitution. We remain engaged in talks, but we will not negotiate on the basis of the referendum.”

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Baghdad, Iraq, September 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

In the Kurdish areas, the result is not in doubt, with people expecting a big “yes” to independence.

In Irbil, a night of fireworks, flag-waving and dancing followed Monday’s vote.

“We made a Kurdish state today,” Irbil resident Ahmad told AFP.

“We’re Kurdish people, we’re not Arab, we’re not Persian, we’re no one else… We’re Kurds and we’ll remain Kurds forever.”

Polling was peaceful, but it increased tensions between the Iraqi Kurds and their neighbors, raising fears of unrest.

Abadi had declared before the vote he would take “necessary measures” to protect Iraqi unity, and he was due to meet parliament members on Wednesday.

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 so far.

Turkish warning

Analysts say Baghdad was unlikely to seek a confrontation with the Kurds for now, especially as Iraqi forces continue battling the Islamic State terror group in its final bastions.

Turkey, concerned the vote could stoke the separatist ambitions of its own sizable Kurdish population, repeatedly condemned the referendum.

On Tuesday, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that Iraq’s Kurds risked sparking an “ethnic war.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York City, September 20, 2017. (John Moore/Getty Images/AFP)

“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 in a televised speech.

Erdogan had warned on Monday that Turkey would shut its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and threatened to block key exports from the region through Turkey.

Erdogan even suggested the possibility of a cross-border incursion similar to the one Turkish forces have carried out against IS and Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Iraqi soldiers on Tuesday were seen taking part in a Turkish military drill launched last week in the southern province of Sirnak close to the Iraqi border.

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

Kirkuk curfew lifted

A curfew was lifted early Tuesday on parts of the city of Kirkuk, where it had been imposed on the city center and non-Kurdish neighborhoods over fears of unrest.

Officials reported that turnout for the referendum stood at 72 percent, with 3.3 million of the 4.58 million registered voters taking part.

Iraqis Kurds wave Kurdish flags in the streets of the northern city of Kirkuk on September 25, 2017, as voting took place for a referendum on independence. (AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye)

Participation was at only 50% in Sulaimaniyah province, the home base of political forces opposed to Barzani.

His opponents have accused the long-time regional chief of seeking to empower himself through the vote, and said he should have accepted a UN-backed plan to put off the referendum in favor of negotiations with Baghdad.

The United Nations and United States had urged Barzani to cancel or postpone the vote, with Washington especially concerned it could hamper the fight against IS in which Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been vital.

‘Political chaos’

Issam al-Fayli, a political science professor at Baghdad University, said he did not expect any immediate confrontations.

“There will be some minor incidents but the crisis should in the end remain under control,” he said.

Iran, which like Turkey has a large and restless Kurdish population, also opposed the referendum.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

Ali Akbar Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said after the vote it would sow “political chaos in the region.”

Left without a state of their own when the borders of the Middle East were redrawn after World War I, the Kurds see themselves as the world’s largest stateless people.

The non-Arab ethnic group number between 25 and 35 million spread across Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.

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