All foreign flights to and from the Kurdistan Region will be suspended from Friday evening as the Iraqi government mounts pressure on Erbil to cancel the outocme of the Kurdish vote on independence. Photo AFP / Safin Hamed
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The Iraqi-imposed ban on international flights to and from the Kurdistan Region will not affect military aircraft, the chief of Erbil International airport told reporters on Friday, just hours before the ban came into effect.
Talar Faeq said Erbil airport has always been under the supervision of Iraqi civil aviation and has fully complied with all requirements and instructions from the Iraqi authorities.
“We do not understand yet what are the things the airport has not implemented,” Faeq said, noting that Iraqi authorities have failed to point out any irregularities.
She said civil aviation is meant to be an independent institution, not dragged into political matters.
“Why this issue came out only now?” she asked.
Iraq’s defense ministry has denied that they have deployed forces to take control of border gates between the Kurdistan Region and neighbouring countries.
A statement published by Iraq’s Joint of Command, however, hinted that such a plan is in place.
“[We] reaffirm that we are committed to the plan in place by the Iraqi government, when the time is due,” the statement read.
Iraqi authorities have demanded Erbil hand over control of its two international airports in Erbil and Sulaimani to Baghdad by 6pm on Friday, or a flight ban will be imposed.
The Kurdistan government has called measures decreed by Baghdad in response to Monday’s vote for independence as “collective punishment,” arguing that federal Iraqi authorities do not have the right to impose such measures under the constitution.
The Iraqi government has said that closing Kurdistan’s borders is not meant to punish the Kurdish people.
“The central government assuming control of land and air borders in the Kurdistan Region is not to starve, prevent funds, or impose a blockade as claimed by some officials of the Kurdistan Region,” a statement from the office of the Iraqi government read on Friday just as the last international flights are set to take off.
The purpose of the border measures is to bring the movements of people and goods under the control of Iraqi authorities, the statement continued, as is the case around the world to “stop smuggling and prevent corruption.”
The statement did not mention if any illegal activity was being conducted at Kurdistan’s air and land ports.
It said that Iraq is prepared to lift the flight ban if the Kurdish authorities agree to hand over control of the airports to Baghdad, as is the case in every other province in Iraq.
Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdistan Region is a recognized federal entity with its own parliament and government. Laws passed by the Iraqi government should first be approved by the Kurdish parliament before they can come into effect.
The Kurdistan government has called on the parliament to hold a session on Saturday to reject the flight ban and other measures taken by the Iraqi government and parliament in response to the independence vote.
Kurdistan travel agencies protest Iraq flight ban, 7K jobs at stake
Peaceful protest against travel ban
Nishtiman Youth Network (NYN) organized a peaceful protest at both Erbil and Sulaimani airports.
“We disagree with the Iraqi government on the flight ban in Kurdistan,” Avan Sherzad, a volunteer and organizer of NYN, told Rudaw English at Erbil’s airport.
Organizers released 1,000 balloons at Erbil and Sulaimani airports “with peaceful messages attached throughout the area and tell all the world we only want peace in a very nice way and we disagree about the ban,” Sherzad explained.
“We’re here today because we need to stand up and show our voice that the Iraqi government made a very bad decision without thinking [of the consequences],” said Hulya Abbo from Erbil, an attendee at the protest. “We want to show other countries and please ask them to support us.”
She said that Kurdistan needs the support of the international community to become a successful and independent Kurdistan.
An NYN volunteer said they launched the campaign to bring attention to the international community that the travel ban was unfair. “Iraq, Iran and Turkey should not support a ban on the Kurdistan Region,” she said.
Mohammed from Erbil said, “I am very happy to be here today to support a free Kurdistan.”
Hundreds of protesters attended the event. holding messages such as ‘beauty’, ‘dreams’, ‘happy’, ‘energy’, ‘patience’, ‘positive’, and ‘independence’ – attaching the motivational words in both Kurdish and English to the balloons.
Another attendee, Dashti Shkur, said that Kurdistan accepts and supports all ethnicities in the region and shouldn’t be punished by the travel ban. “We are always peaceful,” he said. “We never threaten anyone as our neighbor countries do.”
Shkur believed the protest that was able to show to the world what Kurds want. “This is us. We want peace. We don’t want to harm anyone else.”
The organizers read a statement in four languages: Kurdish, Arabic, English, and Turkish.
They condemned the ban saying that it will affect all people in the Kurdistan Region, including displaced Iraqis, who number more than 1 million.
The statement said the Iraqi measure aims to “penalize” the people, some of whom are patients seeking treatment abroad or students pursuing education.
Last updated at 7:54 pm
Additional reporting from A.C. Robinson