ERBIL, Iraq, Sept 28, (Agencies): Hundreds of passengers waited to board flights out of the Kurdish region at Erbil International Airport on Thursday after Baghdad threatened to ban flights following an independence referendum held by Iraq’s Kurds earlier this week. Most international carriers who fly to and from airports in the Kurdish region announced they would halt flights beginning Friday night in line with the ban. Also on Thursday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Turkey has agreed to deal only with Baghdad on oil exports from the self-ruled Kurdish region. At Erbil’s airport, many of the passengers were foreigners who said they were traveling to avoid possibly being stuck once the flight ban goes into effect Friday.
Murat Mutlar, a Turkish citizen, said the company he works for in Erbil ordered him to leave before Friday and as of Thursday he didn’t know if he’ll return. “It depends on the situation here. If they make again all flights open … we will come back again and continue our work,” he said. Iraq’s Transport Ministry ordered international airlines to halt service to Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city, beginning Friday evening. State carrier Qatar Airways was just the latest airline to announce all flights to and from the Kurdish region would be canceled starting Saturday. Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines, EgyptAir and Royal Jordanian announced Wednesday that flights would be suspended beginning Friday evening. Low-cost carrier FlyDubai said it is halting flights from Saturday. And Sharjah-based Air Arabia said it will “temporarily suspend its flights” from Saturday in line with the order it received from the Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority.
Meanwhile, Turkey threatened potentially crippling restrictions on oil trading with Iraqi Kurds on Thursday after they backed independence from Baghdad in a referendum that has alarmed Ankara as it faces a separatist insurgency from its own Kurdish minority. Iraq’s Kurds endorsed secession by nine to one in a vote on Monday that has angered Turkey, the central government in Baghdad, and other regional and world powers, who fear the referendum could lead to renewed conflict in the region. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi’s office said he had been told by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in a call that Turkey would break with past practice and deal only with the Baghdad government when purchasing oil from Iraq.
Most oil that flows through a pipeline from Iraq to Turkey comes from Kurdish sources and a cut-off would severely damage the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which relies on sales of crude for almost all its hard currency revenues. So far the oil pipeline is operating normally despite Turkish threats to impose economic sanctions on the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. Turkish officials, however, ramped up pressure on the Kurds on Thursday Yildirim said Turkey would respond harshly to any security threat on its border after the referendum, although that was not its first choice.
Yildirim also said he agreed with Abadi to coordinate economic and trade relations with the central government in Baghdad. He said Turkey, Iran and Iraq may meet to discuss the referendum. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said Turkish armed forces would stop training Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, which protected oil fields from capture by the Islamic State.
With the region’s largest Kurdish population, Turkey has been battling a three-decade insurgency in its largely Kurdish southeast and fears the referendum will inflame separatist tensions at home. Kurdish officials say they can withstand an economic blockade because they are self-sufficient in terms of power generation and fuel supply, and they also have fertile agricultural land.
They also say that three quarters of the trucks that cross the Turkish border are heading to territory controlled by Baghdad rather than to the Kurdish region, so the Turkish and Iraqi economies would suffer from any blockade. But travel to the Kurdish region will become harder if airports in Erbil and Sulaimaniya are closed to international flights. Their autonomous region in Iraq is the closest the Kurds have come in modern times to a state. It has flourished amid Iraq’s civil war but may struggle to maintain investment if it is blockaded economically. Kurdish officials say that Abadi’s tough response to the referendum vindicates Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s decision to hold the referendum because they believe Baghdad will not cooperate under any circumstances.
The officials feel that if Baghdad, Turkey, Iran, the United States and the world line up against them, and the Kurds cannot see an end to their hardship, Barzani could come under pressure at home to declare independence. A diplomatic drive to forestall Monday’s referendum failed to persuade Kurdish leaders, some of the United States’ closest Middle Eastern allies, former US officials and experts said. There were expectations that the United States, which said it would not recognise the vote, could use its ties to the Iraqi Kurds to persuade Barzani to cancel the referendum in exchange for a guarantee of talks with Baghdad.