Isolation begins for Iraqi Kurdistan as international flights stop
ARBIL / ANKARA
A ban on international flights into Iraq’s Kurdish region was imposed on Sept. 29 after the Baghdad government retaliated against a vote for independence, as Iran and Turkey also took steps to isolate the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Almost all foreign airlines suspended flights to Arbil and Sulaimaniya, obeying a notice from the government in Baghdad, which controls Iraqi air space. The ban came into force at 6.00 p.m. on Sept. 29.
In addition, Iran banned the transportation of refined crude oil products by Iranian companies to and from the KRG region.
“A directive by the Road and Transportation Organization has temporarily banned carrying oil products from Iran to Iraq’s Kurdistan region and vice versa following the latest developments in that region,” the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported on Sept. 29.
Domestic flights are still allowed, so travelers are expected to travel to the KRG region mostly via Baghdad’s airport, which will come under strain from the extra traffic.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric intervened to oppose the secession of the KRG region, adding to pressure on the Kurds in his first directly political sermon since early last year.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani asked the KRG “to return to the constitutional path” in pursuing self-determination for the Kurdish people, a representative said in a sermon on his behalf.
Turkey, which has already threatened economic sanctions and a military response to any security challenges posed by the referendum result in neighboring northern Iraq, has maintained a drumbeat of opposition to the Kurdish vote.
After talks in Ankara with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sept. 28, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the referendum was illegitimate and Russia and Turkey agreed that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be preserved.
Turkey has so far kept the Habur border gate that opens to the KRG region open, while also starting works on a second border cross with Iraq to bypass Habur.
KRG officials say they can withstand an economic blockade because they are self-sufficient in power generation and fuel supply and 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.
The United Nations offered on Sept. 28 to help resolve the problem between the KRG and Baghdad, the Iraqi foreign ministry said following a meeting between Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari and Jan Kubis, the senior U.N. envoy in Iraq.
The United States was willing, if asked, to help facilitate talks to try to ease tensions between the two sides, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
The 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.
The United States, major European countries and nearby Turkey and Iran opposed the referendum as destabilizing at a time when all sides are still fighting Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said there had been a loss of focus in the fight against ISIL since the referendum.
Baghdad has heaped pressure on the Kurds, demanding they cancel their referendum, while parliament urged the Iraqi government to send troops to take control of oilfields held by Kurdish forces.
Baghdad also told foreign governments to close their diplomatic missions in the Kurdish capital Arbil.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has said the vote is not binding, but meant to provide a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad and neighboring countries over the peaceful secession of the region from Iraq. Baghdad has rejected talks.