Erdogan: Kurdish vote risks ‘ethnic and sectarian war’

Turkish leader threatens to impose sanctions, a day after semi-autonomous Iraqi region holds controversial referendum.

Turkey’s president has warned of an “ethnic and sectarian” war in response to the referendum in the Iraqi Kurdish region, while the Iraqi prime minister has ruled out talks with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over the outcome of the controversial vote. 

In a televised speech from Ankara on Tuesday, Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to impose sanctions against the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, saying it “will be left in a lurch” and its people would go hungry.

“If [Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud] 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.

The comments came as Iraqi troops joined the Turkish army for joint military exercises near Turkey’s border with northern Iraq.

Turkey has long been northern Iraq’s main link to the outside world, but sees the referendum as a threat to its own national security, fearing it will inflame separatism among its own Kurdish population.

“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,” Erdogan said.

Iraq’s Kurds on Monday voted in a key referendum despite fierce opposition from Baghdad, as well as neighbouring Turkey and Iran.

Turnout was reportedly at 72 percent, with 3.3 million of the 4.58 million registered voters taking part, Shirwan Zirar, the election commission spokesperson, said late on Monday.

Results were expected within 24 hours, with an overwhelming “yes” vote not in doubt.

Erdogan described the vote as a “treason to our country” since it had come at a time of good relations between Turkey and its neighbour, the KRG.

He urged Barzani to “give up on an adventure which can only have a dark end”.

Iraq’s reaction

In a separate televised statement on later on Tuesday, Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, appealed for unity in the country as the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) continues. 

“We will never abandon the unity of Iraq. We will never abandon the unity of our territory.” 

In Erbil, KRG President Masoud Barzani urged the Iraqi premier “not to close the door to dialogue because it is a dialogue that will solve problems”.

“We assure the international community of our willingness to engage in dialogue with Baghdad,” he said.

“The referendum is not to delimit the border (between ‘Kurdistan’ and Iraq), nor to impose it de facto,” Barzani added.

Earlier on Tuesday, Turkish and Iraqi troops began joint military exercises in Habur, near Turkey’s southeastern border with Iraq, a Turkish military statement said.

Tuesday’s drills will conclude Turkey’s military exercises in its southeastern region, which began on September 18, a week before Monday’s vote.

Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdelhamid, reporting from Erbil, said that while harsh rhetoric has been used, there is also a “reality on the ground”, and so far, there are more verbal threats than concrete steps being taken. 

But she also said that if more pressure is exerted on Barzani and the KRG, it would only unite the Kurds, not only in the Iraqi Kurdish region, but also in neighbouring countries. 

In Iran, home to millions of ethnic Kurds, Ali Akbar Velayati, chief foreign policy adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, said the vote would trigger “political chaos”, while the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRG) announced it was sending new missile equipment to the border.

Iraqi and Turkish forces are staging joint military exercises near Turkey's border with northern Iraq [AFP]
Iraqi and Turkish forces are staging joint military exercises near Turkey’s border with northern Iraq [AFP]

“The honourable people of Kurdistan will not bear this disgrace,” Velayati was quoted by the semi-official ISNA news agency as saying.

As with Turkey, Iran strongly opposes independence for the Iraqi Kurds, fearing it will provoke separatists among its own Kurdish population.

State television made a rare admission on Tuesday that Kurds in Iran’s northwestern border region had held peaceful demonstrations in support of the referendum.

“People in the cities of Sanandaj, Baneh and Saghez of Kurdistan province held peaceful gatherings congratulating their Iraqi fellow Kurdish-speaking people,” broadcaster IRIB reported.

Iran is also worried about ties between the Kurds and Israel, the only government in the region that has supported Kurdish efforts towards statehood.

READ MORE: A look at Iraq’s Kirkuk before the referendum

“Unfortunately, Barzani has been connected to the Zionists since long ago and hasn’t learned a lesson from Palestine,” said Velayati.

Iran has also blamed its traditional enemies – the Americans and British – despite their firm opposition to the referendum.

Meanwhile, Alireza Elahi, deputy head of the IRG aerial headquarters, said it had “sent new missile equipment to the western region to boost the aerial defence and preparedness against any violation”.

At least one Iranian legislator, however, called for a more conciliatory stance now that the vote has gone ahead.

“The referendum does not mean independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. There is a process which, if implemented, will take two to three years. So, we should not be so sensitive and should only make clear to Kurdish people that this is not in their interest,” Ali Motahari was reported by ISNA as saying.

Source: News Agencies