Last flight departs as Iraq imposes ban for Kurdish independence vote
ERBIL, Iraq/ANKARA (Reuters) – The last international flight left Erbil airport on Friday as the Baghdad government imposed an air ban in retaliation for an independence vote by Iraqi Kurds that has drawn widespread opposition from foreign powers.
Iraq’s Kurds overwhelmingly backed independence in a referendum on Monday, defying neighboring countries which fear the vote could lead to renewed conflict in the region.
Foreign airlines suspended flights to Erbil and Sulaimaniya in the Kurdish region, obeying a notice from the government in Baghdad, which controls Iraqi air space.
Erbil airport was busier than usual as passengers scrambled to catch the last flights out before the ban went into force at 6.00 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Friday.
Domestic flights are still allowed, so travelers are expected to travel to Kurdistan mostly via Baghdad’s airport, which will come under strain from the extra traffic. (Graphics on ‘Iraqi Kurds’ independence push’.
Maintaining the travel curbs is likely to discourage visits by businessmen and Kurdish expatriates, and affect industries including hotels, financial services, transport and real estate.
More than 400 Kurdish travel and tourism companies are directly affected by the flight ban and 7,000 jobs are at risk in the sector, Erbil-based Rudaw TV said.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), meanwhile, refused to hand over control of its border crossings to the Iraqi government, as demanded by Iraq, Iran and Turkey in retaliation for the independence referendum.
As the crisis unfolded, Iraq’s top Shi‘ite cleric intervened to oppose the secession of the Kurdistan region, adding to pressure on the Kurds in his first directly political sermon since early last year.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani asked the KRG “to return to the constitutional path” in pursuing self-determination for the Kurdish people, a representative said in a sermon on his behalf.
“Any attempt to make secession an accomplished fact will lead to undesired consequences affecting Kurdish citizens,” the sermon said.