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Kurdish referendum: Iran halts flights to Iraq's Kurdish region ahead of vote

Iran has halted all flights to and from the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq. The air embargo is the first retaliatory measure against Mondays Kurdish independence referendum, which Iran, Iraq and Turkey all oppose.

All air traffic between Iran and the international airports of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, located in Iraqi Kurdistan, was halted on Sunday at Baghdads behest. The moves came in retaliation to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Governments (KRG) planned referendum on the secession of northern Iraqs Kurdish region on Monday. 

"At the request of the central government of Iraq, all flights from Iran to Sulaymaniyah and Erbil, as well as all flights through our airspace originating from the Kurdistan region, have been stopped," the spokesman for Irans Supreme National Security Council, Keivan Khosravi, was quoted as saying.

Iraqs government has decried the referendum as unconstitutional and fears that it could lead to unrest in the already volatile region. Turkey and Iran, which also have sizeable Kurdish populations, fear the vote will stoke separatist aspirations within their borders, as well. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim denounced the referendum on Sunday, warning that it would "further fuel existing instability, lack of authority and chaos in the region." However, Ankara has yet to impose any retaliatory measures.

While Iran is also desperate to diffuse secessionist aspirations among its Kurdish population, its regime has also supported Shiite groups that have ruled over key security and government positions in Iraq ever since the US-led invasion in 2003 toppled the Saddam Hussein regime.

Meanwhile, the United Nations, US and Britain have all called on the KRG to delay the vote amid fears that it could further destabilize the region. Those calls, however, have fallen of deaf ears. It remains unclear what affect the vote could have on US backing of Kurdish military groups in the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" group in Syria.

However, despite regional and international opposition, Mondays independence referendum is nevertheless scheduled to go ahead and expected to result in a comfortable "Yes" vote. While the vote is not binding, the KRG hopes it will give it a mandate to negotiate the secession of an autonomous Kurdish region from Baghdad and the neighboring countries.

Iranian and Turkish security forces mobilize

A day ahead of the vote, Irans elite Revolutionary Guards also conducted a series of military drills on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Officials, however, insisted that these were part of the countrys annual event marking the beginning of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq and that they had nothing to do with Mondays plebiscite. Clashes between Iranian security forces and the Iranian Kurdish militants based in Iraq are fairly common in the region, with Kurdish separatists regularly carrying out cross-border attacks on Iranian forces.

Turkish fighter jets on Saturday also targeted gun positions, caves and shelters used by militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Such air strikes against the separatist militant group, which is based in northern Iraq, are also common. The PKK launched its insurgencyagainst the Turkish government in 1984. The conflict has since claimed some 40,000 lives. The Turkey, the US and the European Union had designated the PKK as a terrorist group.

dm/kl (AFP, Reuters, dpa)
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