Russia urges Iraq, Kurds to keep referendum from destabilizing region

Russia warned Iraqi and Kurdish leaders on Wednesday to refrain from actions that could destabilize the Middle East following the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In a statement, the Russian foreign ministry said that while it supports the Kurds’ national aspirations, it prefers maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and any solution to the dispute should be solved within a unified Iraqi state, according to Reuters.

As the Kurds claimed victory for the “yes” vote on Tuesday in the independence referendum rejected by Baghdad and Iraq’s neighbors, the Iraqi prime minister ordered the Kurdish region to hand over control of its airports to federal authorities or face a flight ban.Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to visit Ankara on Thursday for talks on Syria and Iraq with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has threatened military action over the independence vote.

The Iraqi Kurdish leadership billed Monday’s vote as an exercise in self-determination, but the Iraqi government is strongly opposed to any redrawing of its borders, and Turkey and Iran fear the move will embolden their own Kurdish populations.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued his ultimatum a day after the landmark vote, which he said was a “historic and strategic mistake by the Kurdish leadership.”

“I will not give up on the unity of Iraq. That is my national and constitutional duty,” he said, adding that any ban would still allow for humanitarian and other “urgent” flights.

Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president who spearheaded the referendum, called for “dialogue” with Baghdad. “Negotiations are the right path to solve the problems, not threats or the language of force,” he said in a televised address.

Iraqi troops are carrying out joint military exercises with Turkey along the border. Fearing the vote could be used to redraw Iraq’s borders, taking a sizable part of the country’s oil wealth with it, al-Abadi has called the referendum an act of “sedition” that “escalated the ethnic and sectarian tension” across the country.

In Iran, thousands of Kurds poured into the streets in the cities of Baneh, Saghez and Sanandaj on Monday night. Footage shared online by Iranian Kurds showed demonstrators waving lit mobile phones in the air and chanting their support into the night. Some footage also showed Iranian police officers assembling nearby or watching the demonstrators.

Iranian state television on Tuesday acknowledged the rallies, a rarity in the Islamic Republic. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard and its regular army have been running military exercises near the border with Iraq’s Kurdish region in a sign of Tehran’s displeasure at the Kurdish referendum.

The United States and United Nations both opposed the referendum, describing it as a unilateral and potentially destabilizing move that could detract from the war Iraqi and Kurdish forces are waging against the Islamic State terror group. Israel has been the only country to support it.

Kurdish electoral commission spokesman Sherwan Zerar put the turnout at about 3.3 million of the eligible 4.5 million residents.

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