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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Turkey warns Iraqi Kurds it will shut airspace and impose border controls

Backed by Turkey and Iran, Baghdad has demanded that the government of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region dismiss the result of last week's controversial referendum or face continued sanctions, international isolation and possible military intervention

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pictured here with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani during a joint press conference at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on October 4, 2017, has warned that Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran could decide together to 'close' the oil taps in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Presidency Press Service / Pool Photo via AP
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, pictured here with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani during a joint press conference at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran on October 4, 2017, has warned that Ankara, Baghdad and Tehran could decide together to 'close' the oil taps in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region. Presidency Press Service / Pool Photo via AP

Turkey issued a fresh warning on Thursday to Iraqi Kurdish leaders, threatening to close its border with northern Iraq and shut its air space after Kurds voted in favour of independence.

"Flights to northern Iraq have already been suspended, the air space and borders will also close soon," Mr Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara, the Turkish capital.

Mr Erdogan stressed the decision to hold the referendum showed the "perfect ingratitude" of the Kurdish regional government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which had developed close commercial and political ties with Turkey.

"We demand the KRG take the necessary lesson from their mistakes and take steps to compensate for them as soon as possible," he said.

The Turkish president earlier announced that Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad could jointly decide to stop the flow of oil from northern Iraq.

Backed by Turkey and Iran, Baghdad has demanded that the government of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region dismiss the result of last week's controversial referendum or face continued sanctions, international isolation and possible military intervention.

"If a decision will be made on closing oil taps in the region, that will be made by us. Turkey, Iran and Iraq's central government will do so together," Mr Erdogan said. "The northern Iraqi leadership is drunk on the result of the referendum, it's not aware of what it is doing or what kind of steps it's taking."

Turkey and Iran have also launched joint military exercises with Iraqi troops on their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Mr Erdogan also criticised the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the referendum, saying Kurds had no legitimacy there, calling them "invaders" in the region.

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Kirkuk is one of a number of areas under Kurdish control but claimed by Baghdad because they are outside of the designated territory of the autonomous Kurdish region.

The central Iraqi government, neighbouring countries and western powers all fear the fallout from the September 25 referendum could spark further conflict in the Middle East.

On Tuesday, Baghdad's central bank informed Kurdish leaders it would stop selling dollars to the Kurdish region's four banks and would halt all foreign currency transfers to the region. Businessmen in Erbil had expressed concern that the dollar ban would cause a "greenback shortage and possibly lead to a grey foreign currency market" as the Iraqi dinar is not accepted abroad.

However, Iraq’s central bank on Wednesday eased financial restrictions after receiving a pledge of co-operation from Kurdish banks. All but four Kurdish-owned banks were allowed to send and receive dollar and foreign currency transfers.

Mr Erdogan's comments came as French president Emmanuel Macron called for dialogue between the Iraqi government and Kurds seeking independence.

Mr Macron held talks with Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi in Paris about French support for the fight against ISIL and rebuilding Iraqi's economy.

Mr Macron said France and others were concerned for the Kurds post-referendum, but stressed Paris supports the territorial integrity of Iraq while acknowledging the "close ties" between the French and the Kurds.

The French president stressed that dialogue "is the only path," adding that "France is ready to contribute actively to mediation".

In response, Mr Al Abadi said he did not want an armed clash with Iraqi Kurdish authorities and urged Kurdish Peshmerga forces in disputed areas to work with Iraqi security forces under the authority of the central government in Baghdad.

"We do not want an armed confrontation, we don't want clashes, but the federal authority must prevail and nobody can infringe on the federal authority," Mr Al Abadi said as he stood beside President Macron.

"I call on the Peshmerga to remain an integral part of the Iraqi forces under the authority of the federal authorities, to guarantee the security of citizens so that we can rebuild these zones," he said, referring to areas taken back from ISIL.