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Kurds In Iraq Face Retaliation After Independence Vote


Kurds in northern Iraq voted overwhelmingly this week in favor of splitting from Iraq and forming an independent country. They say it's a chance to escape a history of mistreatment from the central government. Baghdad and surrounding countries opposed the move, and they warned about retaliation. Now it seems like they're making good on that. And for more on this, we're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf, who's in Irbil in northern Iraq now. Hi, Jane


CHANG: What signs of retaliation are you seeing from Iraq's government already?

ARRAF: Well, I was at the airport, and the airport is a really big deal because the Iraqi government has threatened and seems to be willing to follow through on stopping all international flights starting tomorrow evening. So ahead of this deadline, there are people in the airport rushing to get on those flights. I talked to one Lebanese guy who said that his bosses were sending the entire company out. There were lots of people going to Baghdad who can go to Baghdad because the Baghdad Airport is still open. So this will have a huge effect. There are a lot of Kurds who, you know, rely on that airport as a lifeline, and there are a lot of foreigners. I spoke to the director of the Irbil International Airport, Talar Faiq Salih, and this is what she had to say.

TALAR FAIQ SALIH: Some of the airline - they haven't informed even passenger that they will be ban or suspension or whatever. And nobody actually from the airline came to me to tell me that they're going to start from tomorrow. So everybody are hoping and waiting for the last word from Baghdad.

ARRAF: She points out there are more than a dozen foreign airlines. And this won't just affect the airlines obviously. It will affect people who can't get to their jobs. It will affect local companies. It will affect people going for treatment. And she also says that if they don't have the revenue coming in from international flights, then they might have to close the airport entirely, and there won't even be domestic flights.

CHANG: The Kurds there - they rely a lot on oil exports through Turkey, their big neighbor to the north. And obviously Turkey does not want to see unrest within its own Kurdish minority. So how has Turkey responded to all of this?

ARRAF: Well, they haven't taken this referendum very well. The biggest threats have come from Ankara. President Erdogan actually said that if they close the land border, which they're considering, that the Kurds will go hungry. He said, where will they get their food? Where will they get their clothes? And he also said that they could turn off the oil taps because Kurdistan gets a lot of revenue by exporting oil through a pipeline to Turkey. But the issue is that Turkey would also suffer. It does billions of dollars of trade with Kurdistan. So that really is a double-edged sword.

CHANG: And what do the Kurds in Iraq have to say about all this pressure?

ARRAF: Well, they're used to pressure. They've been through a lot of hard times. They've been through tragedy. There is a recognition that this would be really tough. Let's listen to this from the de facto foreign minister Falah Mustafa.

FALAH MUSTAFA: Well, definitely this will affect the people. It will have a very negative impact on the people. So if it's a punishment to the government, to the people, to all of us, if it's an attempt of annihilation, I don't think in today's world, the international community would sit idle and silent on this.

ARRAF: So the thing is, they seem to be counting on some help from the very people, like the United States and the U.N., who warned them not to go through with the referendum.

CHANG: Well, what leverage does Kurdistan have to get the international community to listen to them and help them avoid getting punished for seeking independence?

ARRAF: Well, part of this is the timing. Now, everyone said to them, this is really terrible timing; don't do this now. But in the Kurdish point of view, the timing isn't really that bad because for the past three years, they have been fighting ISIS. They have been the U.S. allies and other allies on the ground. For the most part, it was Kurdish forces that stepped up and fought. There are a lot of U.S. interests here, and they really believe that if push really does come to shove, the U.S. and the other allies will actually help - step up and help the Kurds.

CHANG: That's NPR's Jane Arraf in Irbil, Iraq. Thank you, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.