Flights to Iraq’s Kurdistan resume but budget dispute with Baghdad continues
LONDON - International flights to and from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region have been allowed by the central government to resume but disputes between Baghdad and Erbil over the country’s budget continue.
Flights in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah were halted in September as part of sanctions imposed on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) after it conducted an independence referendum, which was rejected as illegal by Baghdad.
The ban was extended in December for two months and renewed in February for another possible three months. Only domestic flights were allowed through the region’s airports and Kurdistan-bound international flights were rerouted to Baghdad.
Kurdish authorities agreed that the airports should come under federal control and report to the Iraqi Interior Ministry, a statement from the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said. He met with a Kurdish delegation, which agreed that issues of security and passports would be entrusted to Baghdad.
The decision to lift the flight ban was made “after local Kurdish authorities accepted that central authorities retake control of the two airports,” the statement said.
Federal customs authorities will supervise the “introduction, production and handling of materials and equipment through the two airports,” a decree by Abadi said. It specified that the biometric system used in the Kurdistan region’s airports would be linked with the federal system.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said at a news conference that he “thanked Baghdad and Prime Minister Abadi because it is he who decided to reopen the airports.”
UN Special Representative to Iraq Jan Kubis welcomed the move as a “significant positive step that is certain to boost the atmosphere of partnership cooperation” between the two sides.
The Iraqi Interior Ministry said 500 people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State were handed over to the central government from the KRG.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders reportedly appealed to the Iranian authorities as well as to the Najaf-based Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to help them mediate with Baghdad.
“Kurdish parties, specifically the Kurdistan Democratic Party [led by Masoud Barzani], sent more than one letter to Sistani asking to meet with him or requesting intervention to resolve the crisis with Baghdad,” an Iraqi source told Al-Monitor website on condition of anonymity.
A Kurdish delegation went to Najaf to meet with Sistani’s representatives.
“Sistani’s office is working on reducing tension and defusing any crisis between Iraqis according to constitutional frameworks,” Zeid Talaqani, head of the Rafidain Centre for Dialogue, told Al-Monitor.
Mediation attempts were also reportedly carried out by other Kurdish politicians.
“Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq Barham Salih also attempted to intervene, given his good ties with those close to Sistani,” political analyst Ahmed al-Abyad told Al-Monitor. “The pressure eventually resulted in a phone call between Sistani’s office and Haider al-Abadi during which they discussed the Kurdish crisis.”
Lifting the embargo comes amid a dispute regarding the country’s federal budget. Kurdish lawmakers boycotted a parliament vote that passed the budget, in protest over the region’s diminished allocation.
Barzani branded the reduction “a clear violation of the principle of partnership.”
The budget cuts the KRG share to 12.5% from 17%. Baghdad argued that the new figure is representative of the Iraqi population under KRG control.
“We have now set the share of the [KRG] to one based on the population ratio. There is justice in it,” Abadi said.
The budget did not include allocations to the Kurdish peshmerga. Baghdad said there are thousands of non-existent peshmerga fighters whose salaries were being collected by corrupt figures. It promised to pay them once the central government has a verified list from the KRG.
Top Iraqi government financial officials met with Kurdish regional officials to settle differences over regional bank operations and civil servant salaries. Officials in Baghdad said paying KRG civil servants was expected to start this month.
“We are committed to paying the salaries of the region. We are committed. This is not a false promise,” Abadi said.