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Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly back split from Baghdad

As Erbil-Baghdad tensions soar, regional election officials say 92 percent of voters choose 'Yes' in non-binding poll.

Iraqi Kurds voted

Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted in favour of a split from Iraq, according to regional officials, as tensions soared between Erbil and Baghdad following a contested referendum.

Electoral commission officials on Wednesday told a news conference in Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, that 92.73 percent of the 3,305,925 people who cast ballots voted "yes" in Monday's poll. 

Turnout was put at 72.61 percent.

Kurds went ahead with vote, which took place in three governorates that make up the region and in some disputed areas, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and parts of the northern province of Nineveh, despite intense opposition from the central government in Baghdad, as well as neighbouring countries such as Turkey and Iran.

Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has said the vote will not lead to an immediate declaration of independence and should instead open the door to negotiations.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - who rejected the referendum as illegal - told lawmakers on Wednesday there was no question of using its results as the basis for talks.

"The referendum must be annulled and dialogue initiated in the framework of the constitution. We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum," Abadi said.

"We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan under the constitution," he said.

READ MORE: Kurds must hand over airports or face embargo - Iraqi PM

On Tuesday, Baghdad threatened to impose an international air embargo on the region if it does not hand over control of its airports.

Baghdad last week asked foreign countries to stop direct flights to the international airports of Erbil and Sulaymaniya in KRG territory. Soon after, Iran halted direct flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Lebanon's Middle East Airlines (MEA) said on Wednesday it will suspend flights to and from Erbil airport from Friday.

"For now, we're stopping. The last flight is on the 29th, until they solve the issue," MEA chairman Mohammad al-Hout told Reuters news agency.

Humanitarian and "emergency" flights are exempted, provided they are pre-approved by Baghdad.

Turkish carriers Turkish Airlines, Atlas and Pegasus, which offer frequent connections for Iraqi Kurdistan, will also halt their flights from Friday, the Turkish consulate in Erbil said.

READ MORE: Kurdish vote risks 'ethnic and sectarian war' - Erdogan

Pressure has been mounting on the Kurds since the vote, not just from Baghdad but also from Ankara, with Turkey threatening a range of measures, including cutting off key export routes for the region.

In a televised speech from Ankara on Tuesday, President 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.

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.


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