Kurds Back Independence by 92% in Referendum; Iraq May Deploy Troops in Retaliation

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi of Iraq, center, arriving for a session of Parliament in Baghdad on Wednesday.
Karim Kadim/Associated Press

Iraq’s Parliament asked the country’s prime minister on Wednesday to deploy troops to a disputed area held by Kurdish forces, its latest retaliation against a referendum in which the autonomous region voted decisively to seek independence.

The referendum on Monday has roiled the region and prompted a confrontation with the government in Baghdad, which has called the vote illegal and has vowed to ignore the results. The vote has also provoked the Kurdish region’s two powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran.

Iraq has ordered Kurdish authorities to surrender control of the region’s two international airports or face a shutdown of all international flights starting on Friday. Two airlines — EgyptAir, based in Cairo, and Middle East Airlines, based in Beirut, Lebanon — said on Wednesday that they would suspend flights to and from the Kurdish region beginning on Friday.

The request for troops was an indication of how seriously Baghdad objects to the Kurdish bid for independence, although the decision is up to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

Parliament asked him to send troops to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, one of several disputed areas held by Kurdish troops but claimed by Baghdad.

Iraqi troops, including Shiite Muslim militias incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces, are already in the area, and the American-led coalition is battling Islamic State militants elsewhere in the Kirkuk region. Kurdish troops known as pesh merga are deployed in the multiethnic city of Kirkuk, which they seized when the Iraqi Army fled an assault by the militants in 2014.

The inclusion of Kirkuk and other disputed areas in the referendum enraged the Iraqi government, which interpreted the move as a land grab. Baghdad has accused the Kurds of illegally selling Iraqi oil from the Kirkuk oil fields through a pipeline that runs into Turkey.

The referendum on Monday was nonbinding outside Iraqi Kurdistan and was not internationally recognized.

Kurdish authorities in Erbil announced on Wednesday that 92.7 percent of those who went to the polls on Monday had voted for Kurdish leaders to seek independence.

About 72 percent of 4.6 million registered voters cast ballots, with about 2.9 million voting “yes” to independence and about 224,000 “no,” the Kurdish Independent High Electoral Referendum Commission reported.

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SOURCE: NY Times, David Zucchino

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