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Iraqi Kurdistan's independence push could spark ethnic war: Turkey’s Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses academics at his palace in Ankara, Turkey, September 26, 2017. (Photo by AP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), that the current push for the independence of the KRG could spark an “ethnic war” in northern Iraq.

“If Barzani and the Kurdish Regional Government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war,” Erdogan said in a speech addressing academics at his palace in the capital Ankara on Tuesday.

The Turkish president’s comments came a day after the KRG held a provocative independence plebiscite in the Iraqi Kurdish region despite fierce opposition from Baghdad and neighboring countries Iran and Turkey. Ankara has already warned that disintegration of Iraq has the potential to turn into a major conflict.

The contentious non-binding vote, which was announced by the KRG earlier in the year, was also held in the region much to the consternation of the international community that warned it could most likely throw the already violence-weary Arab country into more trouble.

According to Iraqi Kurdish authorities, the turnout was 76 percent, with 3.3 million of the total 4.58 million registered voters having participated in the plebiscite. The results were expected to be announced within 24 hours following the referendum.   

Elsewhere in his remarks, Erdogan described the Kurdish referendum as “treason to our country,” since it had come at a time of warm relations between Ankara and Erbil, the capital of the KRG. The Turkish president also strongly urged Barzani to “give up on an adventure, which can only have a dark end.”

“Until the very last moment, we weren’t expecting Barzani to make such a mistake as holding the referendum; apparently we were wrong. This referendum decision, which has been taken without any consultation, is treachery,” the Turkish president said.

On Monday, Erdogan said he would seal the Turkish border with the Iraqi Kurdish region over the controversial plebiscite, threatening the Kurdish leaders with blocking their key oil exports. He also did not rule out military intervention in the region to counter the creation of a Kurdish state on its southeastern border, hinting that the would-be state could become a safe haven for Kurdish militants, notably the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militants, who fight against Ankara.

On Tuesday, Erdogan reiterated that Turkey, which fears the effects of the referendum on its large Kurdish population, would consider all options, including economic sanctions and military measures, regarding the KRG, warning the Iraqi Kurds that they would go hungry if Ankara decided to stop the flow of trucks and oil across its border with northern Iraq.  

“All options are on the table right now and being discussed. You (the KRG) will be stuck from the moment we start implementing the sanctions,” said Erdogan in Ankara, warning, “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all (their) revenues will vanish and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.”

Iraqi Kurds wave the Kurdish flag as they celebrate in the streets of the northern city of Erbil, September 25, 2017, following a controversial referendum on independence. (Photo by AFP)

‘Israeli flag will not save you’

Elsewhere in his remarks, the Turkish president said only the Tel Aviv regime would recognize independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

“Who will recognize your independence? Israel. The world is not about Israel. You should know that the waving of Israeli flags there will not save you” from regional isolation, Erdogan said, referring to some Israeli flags waved by a number of people in the streets of Erbil during the celebrations last night.

On Monday, the Iraqi Defense Ministry announced that the country’s army had begun large-scale military drills with the Turkish army along the common border. Earlier in the day, Iraqi legislators had called for the deployment of army troops to areas disputed with Kurds.

Iran, for its part, has announced that it is opposed to the “unilateral” scheme for the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan, underlining the importance of maintaining the integrity and stability of Iraq and insisting that the Kurdistan region is part of the majority Arab country.

On Sunday, Iran also closed its airspace to all flights to and from the Kurdish region at the request of the Iraqi government.

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