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Iraq warns Kurds as they claim victory in independence vote

A day after a disputed referendum by Iraqi Kurds, Turkey and Iraq have staged military drills near the region as Ankara threatens sanctions. The Kurdish leader has said an overwhelming majority backed independence.

Iraqi soldiers exiting an armored transporter outside Kurdistan (picture-alliance/dap/AP/Pool Turkish Military)

Iraqi and Turkish soldiers conducted joint military drills on Tuesday

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi issued an ultimatum to leaders of the autonomous region of Kurdistan on Tuesday, asking them to place their two international airports under the control of the central government or face a flight ban as soon as Friday.

Al-Abadi made the demand a day after the Kurdish independence referendum, which he called a "historic and strategic mistake by the Kurdish leadership."

Read more: What is the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum?

While the final results of the vote have yet to be announced, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said Tuesday the overwhelming majority had voted in favor of independence in the referendum, which is not legally binding.

"You, the people of Kurdistan, you did not allow your will to be broken […] we have entered a new stage," he said, according to Kurdish news agency Rudaw.

Al-Abadi: 'We will not abandon unity'

Watch video 00:30

Barzani claims poll victory

Barzani also urged dialogue with the central government in Baghdad and struck a moderate tone on the future of Kurdish independence.

Read more: In Iraq, minorities pin hopes on a Kurdish state

"The referendum is not to delimit the border [between Kurdistan and Iraq], nor to impose it de facto," he said.

Monday's vote was held both within Kurdistan and in disputed, Kurd-populated territories elsewhere in Iraq, hitting a particularly sore spot for Iraqi officials who have struggled to preserve unity between various ethnic and religious groups.

Baghdad views the referendum as unconstitutional, and al-Abadi has rejected the idea of negotiating on the basis of the vote. In addition to the airport ultimatum, Iraqi troops also engaged in large-scale joint drills with the Turkish army in the areas around Kurdistan on Tuesday.

"We will not abandon the unity and sovereignty of Iraq because this is a national duty," al-Abadi said in a televised address. "The government will impose its authority in accordance with the constitution."

Watch video 03:03

'Yes' vote expected for Kurdish independence

Erdogan threatens sanctions

The vote also prompted anger in other countries with large Kurdish populations, including Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was considering all options, including a military intervention against the Iraqi region. He added that Iraqi Kurds would go hungry if Turkey imposed sanctions, as Ankara is the key trade partner for Kurdistan.

"The moment we shut the valve it's finished for them," Erdogan said, referring to an oil pipeline through Turkey. He also described Barzani's failure to consult Turkey on the vote as a "betrayal of our country."

Iranian Kurds celebrate

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country was "fully and completely" behind the government in Baghdad. Iranian troops also held drills in the region, as the local Kurds celebrated the vote in the streets of Iranian cities. Iranian lawmakers and security officials are set to discuss the situation on Wednesday.

Read more: High turnout in Kurd referendum despite pressure

The central government in war-torn Syria has also expressed its opposition to the vote, but signaled it might be open to granting autonomy to Syrian Kurds.

The US, the European Union, the United Nations and other international partners have all criticized the referendum, fearing it might add fuel to the fire in the volatile region. The 40-million-strong Kurds are among the world's largest ethnic groups without their own state.

dj/cmk (dpa, AFP, Reuters, AP)

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