The backlash from an independence referendum approved by Iraq’s Kurds this week has left the northern Kurdish region increasingly isolated from Baghdad, and the crisis sparked by the vote appears poised to intensify.
Baghdad announced Thursday that Turkey – an indispensable trade partner to the region and once a key political ally – will now only deal with Iraq’s central government on oil sales. That could deprive the Kurdish region of more than 80 percent of its income.
Applying further pressure on the Iraqi Kurds, Baghdad also has ordered international airlines to halt flights to and from the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah starting Friday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurdish administration, to be content with the region’s current semi-autonomous status, enjoy its oil revenue and not drag it into an “adventure that is bound to end in chagrin.”
“Sit still! You are at the helm in northern Iraq, you have money, wealth and everything, you have oil,” Erdogan said Thursday, speaking at a police academy graduation ceremony in Ankara. He said the region has “thrown itself into the fire” by holding the vote.
So far the oil pipeline is operating normally despite Turkish threats to impose economic sanctions on the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. Turkish officials, however, ramped up pressure on the Kurds Thursday. Turkish government spokesman Bekir Bozdag said Turkish armed forces would stop training Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces, which protected oil fields from capture by Daesh (ISIS).
Kurdish officials say they can withstand an economic blockade because they are self-sufficient in terms of power generation and fuel supply, and they also have fertile agricultural land.
They also say that three quarters of the trucks that cross the Turkish border are heading to territory controlled by Baghdad rather than to the Kurdish region, so the Turkish and Iraqi economies would suffer from any blockade.
Iraqi Oil Report, an Iraq energy news service, estimates the region made $683 million a month in such oil sales in 2017. “Everything has a price,” said Baki Mohammad Hadi, a businessman in residential construction and imported electronics.
“We are expecting to have bad days here, but to be honest, business has been bad here since Daesh entered this are,” he said. But, Hadi added, “trade and economy is like water, it goes up and comes down. Even if they close the official borders, trade and business will always find a way,” he said, referencing the region’s long history of smuggling. The nonbinding referendum, in which the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq, was billed by the Kurdish leaders who spearheaded it as an exercise in self-determination that would set the region on the path to statehood. Since Monday’s vote, the crisis seems to have pushed Iraqi Kurds further away from the central government in Baghdad and alienated countries like Turkey and the United States, which have been key allies of the small, landlocked region.
A potential flashpoint in the standoff is the city of Kirkuk. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is under pressure by parliament to send troops to take to take control of oil fields held by the Kurds and Iraq’s powerful largely Iranian-backed Shiite fighters known as the Popular Mobilization forces have said they are ready to move in on the city. Kurdish authorities have rejected Baghdad’s demands that they should annul the referendum and hand over control of their international airports, instead offering to hold talks with Baghdad in an attempt to defuse the airports crisis.
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