Powerful Iraqi cleric calls on Kurds to end independence push

Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani wades into debate after voters backed breakaway in referendum

Syrian Kurds wave the Kurdish flag, in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli during a gathering in support of the independence referendum in the  Kurdish region. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

Syrian Kurds wave the Kurdish flag, in the northeastern Syrian city of Qamishli during a gathering in support of the independence referendum in the Kurdish region. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images

 

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shia cleric, has called on Iraqi Kurds to “return to the path of the constitution” and end efforts to break away from the country, hours before Baghdad planned to shut down international airspace over the region.

The central government said that, at 6pm local time, it would close airspace to all international flights to Iraqi Kurdistan in response to this week’s independence referendum, which delivered a resounding Yes vote despite massive international and regional pressure not to hold the plebiscite.

The US has not come up with any mediation plan to try to ease escalating tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which, at its worst, could lead to violence, regional instability and undermine the fight against Islamic State, also known as Isis. The US-led coalition against Islamic State has pushed the militant group into its final footholds across Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

In a Friday sermon, Mr Sistani waded into the tense and heated debate in Iraq. “Taking steps toward division and separation and attempting to make it fait accompli will lead to negative consequences for the Kurds, and perhaps something even more dangerous than that,” the cleric’s spokesperson said on his behalf.

It was the first political message given by Mr Sistani since 2016, and for the country’s Shia Arab majority, his words carry great weight. It was his fatwa calling on people to volunteer to help defend the country against Islamic State in 2014 that propelled the creation of the forces known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

The controversial paramilitary forces, many of them backed by Iran, have become a significant political force in the country, and could potentially clash with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters along contested territory divided between them in northern Iraq.

Airspace shutdown

The Baghdad-KRG stand-off has centred around the planned Friday airspace shutdown, which could affect some 400 Kurdish businesses and at least 7,000 employees. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, has so far avoided the more escalatory demands made by his parliament. Politicians this week called on him to send forces to retake the oil-rich province of Kirkuk to wrest it back from the Peshmerga. One of the KRG’s most controversial moves this week was the decision to include disputed territories such as Kirkuk in its referendum.

On Friday, many hotels were near empty as most foreigners cleared out of the city before the airspace closure is implemented. The ban is a major headache for international aid groups and the US because the KRG capital of Erbil is a hub for anti-Islamic State military operations as well as humanitarian projects to support millions of refugees scattered across Iraq and Syria due to the two countries’ raging conflicts.

Iraqi politicians are also considering an order for the central bank to block international transfers in and out of banks in the KRG. Some analysts say such a move would hurt businesses even more than the airspace closure, which although chaotic, could be managed by routing flights via Baghdad. Domestic flights are not affected by the ban.

“Banking is a big issue – crude revenues get paid to the KRG in US dollars, and they need to be able to exchange that to dinars to pay people,” said Shwan Zulal, an analyst at King’s College, London. “They [businesses] will probably work out how to do transfers outside the country, but it will create a lot of havoc.”

A more dangerous step would be if Turkey shut down the KRG’s oil pipeline to its Ceyhan port, which provides the region with 90 per cent of its revenues. Despite some sabre-rattling by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Ankara has yet to take any measures.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017