Kurds warn of retaliation if no negotiations
Government closes borders, roads over independence vote
The president of Iraq’s Kurdish region warned Friday that the Kurds might be forced to retaliate if the central government persists with what his spokesman called a “very aggressive” stance toward the pro-independence referendum.
IRBIL, Iraq — The president of Iraq’s Kurdish region warned Friday that the Kurds might be forced to retaliate if the central government persists with what his spokesman called a “very aggressive” stance toward the pro-independence referendum.
Overseas flights were canceled Friday from the international airport in Irbil, hours before a ban by the Iraqi government took effect, and there were also reports of some internal highway closures.
Saad al-Hadithi, the spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said that land borders would also be closed between Iraq’s Kurdish region and Turkey and Iran.
“We are hopeful that these are all temporary measures,” said Vahal Ali, director of communications in the office of Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president. “We want this to be a peaceful transition, but if Baghdad decides not, there is a lot we can also do.”
Ali was critical of threats by Baghdad to ask Turkey to cut a vital oil pipeline, which provides most of the estimated $8 billion the Kurdish region earns annually from oil revenues, and a request from the Iraqi parliament to move troops into the oil-rich, Kurdishheld city of Kirkuk.
“Baghdad’s response to the referendum was very aggressive, so we don’t know what will happen,” the spokesman said.
Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favor of independence in a referendum Monday, which Ali said obliges Barzani to negotiate independence from the rest of Iraq. Baghdad has refused to enter such negotiations, and Ali said that if it maintained that attitude, Kurdistan would be forced to unilaterally declare independence.
“We’ve repeatedly said we can negotiate, but that has to be on the question of independence,” Ali said.
Kurdish officials have expressed dismay at the lack of support they have found internationally, with the United States and other powers, as well as the United Nations, critical of the decision to even hold the referendum and none expressing approval for the pro-independence result.
Hoshyar Zebari, who helped lead the referendum drive in the Kurdish region and was formerly Iraq’s foreign minister, said that criticism of the vote from the United States had “emboldened Baghdad” to take a hard-line position toward the Kurds. Baghdad’s threatened retaliation was, he said, “very damaging and provocative, and illogical and destructive.”
Ali said the Kurds were hopeful that international allies would eventually come around to the idea of Kurdish independence.
Iraq’s influential Shiite spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali al Sistani, was strongly critical of the Kurdish move in his Friday sermon in the southern city of Karbala.
“Any individual steps toward division and separation and the attempt of making this thing reality will lead to internal and external reaction and bad consequences that would damage our dear Kurdish citizens,” he said, adding that move toward independence could also lead to foreign intervention.
On Friday, military officials in Baghdad confirmed that the strategic highway linking Mosul and the northern city of Dohuk, in Kurdish-held territory, was closed by the Iraqi military for several hours. In addition, protests by civilians forced the closure of the Kirkuk-Baghdad highway Friday.
The Iraq border agency announced that it was sending convoys of police officers and Interior Ministry officials to guard three key land border crossings between the Kurdish region and Syria, Turkey and Iran beginning Saturday.
People celebrated in Irbil, Iraq, after Kurds voted in favor of independence Monday. The central government in Baghdad has taken a hard line against the referendum, closing borders and threatening to cut a vital oil pipeline.