Turkey condemns Kurdish independence vote as Western opposition softens

 In World
Millions of Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan voted for their independence referendum on Sept. 25 despite severe opposition from Iraq and other countries. Results are expected by Sept. 28. (Joyce Lee/The Washington Post)

Regional powers and Iraq’s central government vowed to impose crippling economic sanctions and threatened military action against Iraqi Kurdistan on Tuesday, a day after Kurds staged a landmark vote for independence that is emerging as another crisis in a region roiled by civil wars and the fight against the Islamic State.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Kurdish leaders had committed “a strategic and historic mistake” by holding the referendum and gave them until Friday to hand over control of airports and borders in northern Iraq to the federal government. If the order is ignored, international flights to the Kurdish region will be suspended, Abadi said.

Abadi also said that any oil revenues from the Kurdistan region — a critical economic lifeline for the semiautonomous enclave — must be returned to Baghdad, though he did not set any deadline for the demands.

“We will not compromise on Iraq’s unity or sovereignty,” he said. “We have taken measures to impose federal authority according to the Iraqi constitution.”

The orders are the latest signal that Iraq’s central government, along with Turkey and Iran, are holding firm to their pledge to block Kurdish separation from Iraq. Kurdish leaders have said the nonbinding referendum vote would give them leverage in stalled talks with the Iraqi government over revenue-sharing and borders, despite warnings from the United States that the poll would destabilize the country and potentially the region.

Turkey’s president on Tuesday ramped up his criticism of the referendum, calling it “treachery” against Turkey and threatening to impose a stifling blockade of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

The comments by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were the latest in a series of admonitions by Turkish officials and other regional leaders over the vote that many Iraqi Kurds see as a critical step toward their long-deferred dream of self-determination.

Iranian state media quoted a military commander on Tuesday as saying that new missile batteries have been installed in an area bordering the Kurdish region to “firmly respond to any invasion.” Iran closed its airspace to flights to Kurdistan over the weekend.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Iran — which has strong influence over Iraq’s politics and military — will not support any Kurdish secession. He said Kurdish independence would be akin to “creating a second Israel,” state media reported, according to the Associated Press. Israel has been the only country to publicly support the referendum.

The results of the referendum have not been fully tallied, but officials expect an overwhelming “yes” on independence — the first step on a possible path toward a break with Baghdad.

Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani responded to the increasingly dire rhetoric out of Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran in a televised speech late Tuesday, saying that the referendum was not meant to immediately “draw new borders” but instead begin discussions on how to become “good neighbors.”

“The only way to solve our problems is through discussion and understanding, not through threats,” Barzani, adding that the international community should support the democratic exercise by the Kurds. 

The vote was opposed by virtually all of the Kurds’ allies and neighbors, including the United States and Iran. Turkey, which has fought for decades against Kurdish separatists at home, has reacted with growing anxiety as Kurdish groups have gained in strength and influence across its borders in Syria and Iraq.

In a sign of the regional reverberations from the referendum, thousands of Iranian Kurds demonstrated Monday night in towns and cities in western Iran, defying their government’s opposition to the vote in a show of Kurdish solidarity.

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