Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened military action against Iraq’s Kurdish region Monday, as millions of voters there took part in a controversial independence referendum that has rattled Baghdad and its neighbors.
Speaking in Ankara, Erdoğan said his country would not accept an independent Kurdish state, and referred ominously to Turkish military exercises already underway on the border of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region.
“Our military is not [at the border] for nothing,” he said. “We could arrive suddenly one night.”
Erdoğan said that Turkey, currently battling an insurgency by its own Kurdish minority, would also take political and economic measures to thwart Kurdish independence hopes, including potentially cutting off oil exports from the region. Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said earlier on Monday that Iraqi army officers would join the Turkish military exercises, in an apparent joint show of resolve against the Kurds.
The non-binding referendum has been almost universally condemned.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who says the vote is unconstitutional, has vowed to never accept the disintegration of Iraq, and called on other countries to halt imports of oil from the Kurdish region. Neighboring Iran, Syria, and Turkey, who each have large Kurdish minorities they fear could be emboldened by the referendum, have criticized the vote and say they will refuse to recognize it. Tehran has closed its borders with the Iraqi Kurdish region in response.
Even the U.S., a key Kurdish ally, and the U.N. Security Council oppose the referendum, saying it will destabilize the region and distract from efforts to defeat ISIS.
Israel is the only country to have come out in support of the vote.
Voting in Monday’s referendum is open to some 5.2 million residents of Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Iraq, both Kurds and non-Kurds alike, aged 18 or over. It gives them a yes / no vote on a single question: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?”
The Kurdistan Regional Government says the anticipated “yes” vote will give them a mandate to start talks with Baghdad on independence. The region’s president Masoud Barzani said Sunday that he would request talks with Baghdad on how to implement the results of the referendum, suggesting an immediate declaration of independence was unlikely.
“If we have a constructive dialogue, then we can give it even more time, in order to secure better relations between the Kurds and Baghdad,”Barzani said.
The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, comprising about 15-20 percent of Iraq’s population and a significant minority in Turkey, Iran and Syria, but they’ve never had their own sovereign nation state. Polls are expected to close at 6 p.m. local time (11 a.m. ET).