Kurds approve independence in referendum, setting up showdown with Iraq

Iraq's Kurds have voted to create an independent state, the High Elections and Referendum Commission said Wednesday following a referendum that has angered the Baghdad government and regional powers Turkey and Iran.

Iraq, staunchly opposed to independence push, moves to isolate cities of Erbil and Sulaimaniya

A man with Yes shaved into his hair chants through a speaker in the streets of Erbil, after polling stations closed on Monday. Over 92 per cent of Kurds in Iraq who voted in a referendum supported independence, the electoral commission announced. (Bram Janssen/Associated Press)

Iraq's Kurds have voted to create an independent state, the High Elections and Referendum Commission said Wednesday following a referendum that has angered the Baghdad government and regional powers Turkey and Iran. 

More than 92 per cent of people casting ballots voted in favour of independence, the electoral commission announced. More than 3.3 million people, or 72 per cent of eligible voters, took part in Monday's ballot.

The referendum has fuelled fears of a new regional conflict. A delegation from Iraq's Armed Forces headed to neighbouring Iran to co-ordinate military efforts, apparently as part of retaliatory measures taken by the government in Baghdad following the vote.

Baghdad demanded that foreign governments close their diplomatic missions in Erbil, the seat of the autonomous Kurdish government and a hub for humanitarian activities in northern Iraq.

Iraq's prime minister has ruled out the use of force in the government's confrontation with the Kurdish region, however.

Haider al-Abadi told lawmakers Wednesday that he will "enforce the rule of the federal authority in the Kurdish region with the power of the constitution," saying he doesn't want "a fight between the Iraqi citizens."

Iran and Turkey also oppose any move towards Kurdish secession and their armies have started joint exercises near their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan in recent days. Iraq and Turkey have also held joint military drills.

International flights suspended

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) earlier in the day rejected an Iraqi central government ultimatum to hand control of its international airports to Baghdad.

The escalating crisis threatened to strand expatriates, diplomats and aid workers stationed in Erbil.

The Iraqi Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) notified international airline companies that international flights to and from Erbil and the region's second largest city, Sulaimaniya, would be suspended Wednesday. Only domestic flights run by Iraqi carriers will be allowed to continue operating.

Passengers queue at the check-in counters at Erbil International Airport, Iraq, Wednesday. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

Kurdish authorities rejected Baghdad's demands that they should annul the referendum as a condition for dialogue and hand over control of their international airports.

On Wednesday evening, Kurdish Rudaw TV reported that the Kurdistan regional government had offered to hold talks with Baghdad about hosting Iraqi observers at Erbil and Sulaimaniya airports to help defuse the crisis.

Turkey, which has threatened to impose sanctions on the Kurds, said its border with northern Iraq remained open, although it may not remain so. The number of trucks passing through had however decreased.

Erdogan and Putin meet Thursday 

Home to 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 tension at home.

For their part, Kurdish leaders in neighbouring Syria said the KRG referendum could bolster their cause for autonomy in negotiations with the Damascus government. Two meetings so far on the matter had gone nowhere, they told Reuters.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who have stressed the need for Iraq's borders to remain unchanged, will meet in Ankara on Thursday.

Russia's interest in the region is growing. Oil major Rosneft is increasing investment in Kurdistan and the Kurds have been developing strong ties with Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned Iraq and the Kurds against taking any steps that might destabilize the Middle East after the referendum.

Turkish tanks manoeuvre during a military exercise near the Turkish-Iraqi border in Silopi, Turkey, Sept. 27. (Umit Bektas/Reuters)

The Kurds consider Monday's referendum to be a historic step in a generations-old quest for a state of their own.

Iraq considers the vote unconstitutional, especially as it was held not only within official KRG territory itself but also on disputed territory held by Kurds elsewhere in northern Iraq.

The outcome has caused anger in Baghdad, where parliament, in a session boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers, asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to the Kurdish-held region of Kirkuk to take control of its oilfields.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces took Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic region, in 2014 when the Iraqi army fled in the face of ISIS which overran about a third of Iraq. The Kurds prevented Kirkuk's huge oil resources from falling into the militants' hands.

"The government has to bring back the oilfields of Kirkuk under the control of the oil ministry," the resolution backed by parliament in Baghdad said.

The area, long claimed by the Kurds, is also home to Turkmen and Arab communities, that opposed the independence vote, although the KRG included the area in the referendum.

Mandate for negotiations

Barzani, who is KRG president, has said the vote is not binding, but meant to provide a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad and neighbouring countries over the peaceful secession of the region from Iraq. Baghdad has rejected talks.

Abadi, a moderate from Iraq's Shia Arab majority, is under pressure to take punitive measures against the Kurds. Hardline Iranian-backed Shia groups have already threatened to march on Kirkuk.

The High Elections and Referendum Commission holds a press conference in Erbil, Iraq, on Wednesday. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)

The Kurds were left without a state of their own when the Ottoman Empire crumbled a century ago. Around 30 million are scattered through northern Iraq, southeastern Turkey and parts of Syria and Iran.

The autonomous region they control in Iraq is the closest the Kurds have come in modern times to a state. It has flourished, largely remaining at peace while the rest of Iraq has been in a continuous state of civil war for 14 years. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, they have had to carefully balance their ambitions for full independence with the threat of a backlash from their neighbours and the reluctance of Washington to redraw borders.

In the past four years they achieved a measure of economic independence by opening a route to sell oil through pipelines to a port in Turkey. But that still leaves them at the mercy of Ankara.

The U.S. State Department said it was "deeply disappointed" by the decision to conduct the referendum, while the European Union regretted that the Kurds had failed to heed its call not to hold the vote.

With files from The Associated Press