Baghdad-Erbil tensions mount over Kurdish vote

October 01, 2017
Bygone times? Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (R) is welcomed by the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani in Erbil in 2015. (AFP)

London- The fallout between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurdis­tan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil worsened after KRG President Masoud Barza­ni went ahead with a controversial referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, despite regional and international warnings against the move.
The KRG said 92.7% of voters cast a “yes” ballot on September 25, citing a 72% turnout of 4.5 mil­lion voters. Critics said the figures, should they be accurate, did not show the vote break-out, which is important in the disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil as they host large non-Kurdish popula­tions, many of whom boycotted the referendum.
In Hawija, which is in the dis­puted Kirkuk province but under control of the Islamic State (ISIS), the vote did not take place.
The United Nations refused to monitor the referendum, the tim­ing of which it objected to, as did the United States and the European Union.
The United States reiterated that it “does not recognise” the referendum, saying the “vote and the results lack legitimacy”. “We remain concerned about the potential negative consequences of this unilateral step,” read a statement by the Department of State.
Both the United Nations and the United States expressed readiness to mediate between Baghdad and Erbil.
The Iraqi government banned international flights into the coun­try’s Kurdish-majority region and almost all foreign airlines an­nounced suspending flights to the cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

International travellers would be required to fly to Baghdad before taking a domestic flight to Kurdis­tan. Humanitarian aid, military and diplomatic planes were excluded from the ban. Many foreigners left the region before the ban took ef­fect to avoid being stuck.
Baghdad demanded that the KRG relinquish control of its bor­der crossings to the central govern­ment but Kurdish officials refused to comply and Iraqi forces are un­able to enforce it - for the time being. The KRG rejected Baghdad’s measures as “illegal and unconstitutional.”
Iraqi forces resumed their cam­paign against ISIS in Hawija on September 29 after suspending their military operations in the city for a few days. The spokesman for the US-led coalition against ISIS said the referendum had taken fo­cus away from the war against mili­tants.
The fallout prompted Iraq’s top Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, to weigh in by announc­ing his opposition to the secession of the Kurdistan region, calling on the KRG “to return to the constitu­tional path.”
The referendum appeared to have unified many Iraqi politicians along ethnic lines. Most Arab and Turkmen MPs said the referendum was not constitutional; Kurdish lawmakers argued that it was. The Iraqi parliament passed a reso­lution calling on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “take all neces­sary measures to maintain Iraq’s unity,” which include deploying forces to disputed areas such as oil-rich Kirkuk.
Regional rivals Turkey and Iran threatened the KRG with economic sanctions if the Kurdish authority takes practical steps towards seces­sion from Iraq. Ankara and Tehran also promised to stand by Baghdad militarily to preserve the unity of Iraq.