Even as Kurds celebrated the overwhelming approval of an independence referendum, Iraq took actions to punish the would-be breakaway state, vowing to shut down its airspace and join Turkey in holding military exercises.
Calling the vote “unconstitutional,” Iraq’s parliament Wednesday also asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to the oil-producing, Kurdish-held region of Kirkuk and take control of its lucrative oil fields.
It told the 34 countries that have diplomatic missions in Kurdistan to shut them down and urged Abadi to enforce a decision to fire Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim for holding the vote, and deploy forces to areas that were under Iraqi government control before the fall of Mosul to Islamic State over three years ago.
“We will enforce federal authority in the Kurdistan region, and we already have starting doing that,” Abadi said.
The prime minister’s office said he spoke Thursday by phone with his Turkish counterpart Binali Yildirim, who said Turkey supports all measures taken by the Iraqi government to preserve the country’s unity, including dealing only with the Baghdad government on oil exports.
The referendum isn't binding, but it is the first step in a process that clearly leads in that direction, despite strong criticism from Iraq, its neighbors — particularly Iran and Turkey — and the United States.
These nations have described it as destabilizing at a time when all sides are still fighting against IS militants.
Turkish troops are conducting military exercises at the Iraqi border, and Iraqi soldiers joined in four kilometers from the Habur border gate between the two countries. National and international media observed the exercises from the main highway leading to the border gate.
Turkey, which has its own restive Kurdish minority, is particularly concerned about the independence movement sweeping into its territory. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that all military and economic measures are on the table against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), calling the decision to go ahead with the vote a “betrayal to Turkey.”
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Omer Merani, the Ankara representative of Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, has been asked to not return to Turkey.
“If the KDP's representative were here, we would ask him to leave the country,” Cavusoglu said. “We have instead said, ‘Don't come back,' because he is currently in Irbil.”
The Kurds, who have ruled over an autonomous region within Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, consider Monday's referendum to be a historic step in a generations-old quest for a state of their own. It was approved by 92.7 percent of voters, and residents headed to Kirkuk's citadel to celebrate late Wednesday after the results were released.
Iraq said it would close international airspace Friday over Kurdistan's two airports — Irbil and Sulaimani — at 6 p.m. Domestic flights were allowed to continue. Most of Iraq's neighbors, including Turkey, Egypt and Iran, said they would abide by the restriction and suspend flights there.
Qatar Airways will continue operations “as long as airways are open and we can transport our passengers safely,” according to CEO Akbar Al Baker, Reuters reported.
Maulood Bawa Murad, Kurdistan's transportation minister, said Baghdad's efforts to take over the airports would hurt the U.S. support missions for the fight against IS and that it would bode badly for the possibility of negotiations with Iraq.
“If this decision is meant to punish the people of Kurdistan for holding a referendum on its independence and deciding its fate, no talks with [Baghdad] will reach a conclusion,” Murad said.
While opposing the referendum, the U.S. said Iraq's moves weren’t “constructive” to resolving the situation.
Senator Bob Corker, a Republican from Tennessee who was recently in Kurdistan, said he was disappointed with the decision to hold the vote despite calls for a delay. He said he hoped officials there would proceed in a “cautious and thoughtful manner.”
“I don't like the destabilizing effects it could have on Iraq and the elections that will take place next year,” Corker said. “It's going to bring a lot of issues. The Kurdish people have been great friends of our country. They've helped so much to fight against ISIS.”
VOA's Kurdish, Turkish and Urdu services contributed to this report.