Baghdad-Erbil tensions mount over Kurdish vote
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.