Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the legitimacy of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s push for independence in the referendum in northern Iraq could not be “saved” even by the “waving of Israeli flags.” In an address in the Turkish city of Ankara, President Erdogan derided the Kurds for their embracing of Israel, who he said was the only country within the international community to support the Kurdish ambitions. Erdogan further warned of dire consequences, stressing that the Iraqi Kurds, whom are reliant on economic relations with Turkey which provides the Kurdistan Regional Government a gateway to global markets, would go hungry if Ankara decides to halt the flow of trucks and oil across its borders, while declaring that all military and economic measures were on the table. President Erdogan said, “When we start imposing our sanctions, they will be left in the lurch. It will be over when we close the oil taps, all revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.” Erdogan added, “All options are on the table from economic sanctions to military choices. All of them are on the table including (shutting down) air space and borders,” the Turkish leader warned. The comments by President Erdogan, which were some of the harshest yet made by the Turkish leader with regard to the referendum in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, came as Iraqi troops joined the Turkish army for a joint military exercise near Turkey’s border with northern Iraq, a move a Turkish official told TV7 “is meant to make it very clear to the Kurds that neither Ankara nor Baghdad, will stand idly by as the Kurdish leadership highjacks northern Iraq.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared that as a first step in a series of measures to thwart the Kurdistan Regional Government from pursuing independence, the Iraqi central government in Baghdad gave the Kurdish leadership until Friday to hand over control of its airports and border crossings in order to avoid an international air embargo. The Iraqi Prime Minister said, “All land and border-crossings linking Iraq republic with the neighboring countries through Kurdistan Region must be returned to federal jurisdiction.” Al Abadi added, “Iraq will suspend all international flights to and from the Kurdistan region’s airports of Sulaimaniya and Erbil if these airports will not be returned to federal jurisdiction. The Cabinet decided to give (Kurdistan Region) until 6pm (Baghdad time) on Friday to implement this order. All international flights will be suspended if these airports are not returned to the federal jurisdiction,” he warned.
Referendum results indicated that 72 percent of eligible voters had taken part in the vote, with an overwhelming majority of more than 90 percent saying “yes” to independence. The Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani declared the results in a televised address, emphasizing that never again will the Kurdish people of northern Iraq be subject to the persecution of the central government in Baghdad. That said, the Kurdish leader emphasized that while the region might face hardships, the future of an independent Kurdistan will be bright. President Barzani said, Great people of Kurdistan, you did not allow anyone to break your will when you voted “yes” to independence and “no” to new Anfal, chemical attack and massacre. We entered a new stage and this is a win for all Kurdistan.” The Kurdish leader added “We might face hardships, but I am sure the future will be bright. The most important thing is that the will of the people of Kurdistan could not be broken. By our unity we will overcome hardships,” he declared. In a direct message to the Iraqi central government and its Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, President Barzani urged them to replace threats of punishment with serious dialogue that could bring about positive relations between neighbors. The Kurdish leader said, “Respect the will of the people of Kurdistan. Is it right that the will of millions of people has no legitimacy?” while urging the Iraqi government that “Instead of threatening and punishments, let’s start a serious dialogue to be good neighbors,” Barzani said.
While threats and ultimatums threaten the northern Iraqi region with war, Kurds took to the streets to celebrate their historic vote. One of the Iraqi Kurds celebrating in the Kurdish city of Irbil said, “I have a feeling that my martyr brother has returned back to life and I feel that I was reborn today.”
For Iraqi Kurds – part of the largest ethnic group left stateless when the Ottoman empire collapsed a century ago – the referendum offered a historic opportunity despite intense international pressure to call it off.