Iran halts Iraq Kurdistan flights ahead of disputed independence vote

TEHRAN/ERBIL, Jan Kuhlmann and Farshid Motahari (dpa)– Iran said Sunday it has halted all flights from and to Iraq’s Kurdistan, a day before the autonomous region goes to the polls in an independence referendum that has triggered international opposition.
The airspace to northern Iraq was closed and all flights to the Kurdish cities of Sulaimaniyah and Erbil were cancelled until further notice at the request of the central Iraqi government, the Iranian Tasnim news agency reported, citing an Iranian National Security Council announcement.

Both Baghdad and Tehran oppose the Kurdistan referendum amid fears the vote will spark regional feuds.
Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards started military manoeuvres in a border area with Kurdistan on Sunday.
The drills officially have nothing to do with the Kurdish referendum. Observers however have said the timing of the exercises suggest a connection with developments in Iraq.
The referendum has raised alarm among Iraq's neighbours - Turkey, Iran and Syria - over concerns it could encourage their own Kurdish minorities to break away. Turkey has warned it may impose sanctions on Kurdistan over the plebiscite.
In an attempt to dispel regional concerns, Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani said Iraqi Kurds want "excellent" ties with neighbours.
"Our message to neighbours: We look forward to having an excellent relationship with them," Barzani said at a press conference in Erbil Sunday.
"This referendum is not to draw the border of Kurdistan. After the referendum, we will be ready to start a long process of dialogue with Iraq and give it as much time as needed."
Barzani charged Baghdad of undermining "partnership" with Kurdistan. "Iraq has deprived Kurds of rights and humiliated them. We have reached the conclusion that only through independence can we secure our future."
The UN has warned of the vote's "potentially destabilizing effect," while the US has said it could fuel regional unrest and distract attention from ongoing campaigns to rout Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
While Barzani was speaking, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi vowed to take unspecified action to preserve what he called "the country's unity and interests of its entire people."
Al-Abadi said in a televised address that the vote is unconstitutional and will affect regional security.
"There will be no support [to Kurdistan] either from the international community or neighbours because of hostile stances adopted by the territory's officials," he added.
While Iranian President Hassan Rowhani said he fully supported the Iraqi government's opposition to the plebiscite, he urged al-Abadi to respond "calmly and intelligently" to the move in a phone call late Sunday.
The referendum is set to be held Monday in Kurdistan as well as in disputed areas between Baghdad and Erbil, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
The vote has raised fears of violence in the country.
The US embassy in Iraq on Sunday cautioned against potential unrest during the vote and advised US citizens against travelling in the disputed areas.
Four Iraqi Kurdish soldiers were killed late Saturday in an explosion in Kirkuk, police said.
Seven other Kurdish Peshmerga troops were injured in the blast that hit their patrol car in Kirkuk, around 250 kilometres north of the capital Baghdad.
There was no claim of responsibility.
In 2014, Kurdish forces seized Kirkuk after Iraqi government troops withdrew from the region in the face of a blitz by the Islamic State extremist militia.

Monday, September 25th 2017
Jan Kuhlmann and Farshid Motahari

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