By SUSANNAH GEORGE
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Hundreds of passengers lined up in the hours before an Iraqi government order that international airlines halt all flights in and out of the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah in Kurdish territory kicks in Friday.
Airport officials speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations said the volume of passengers was higher than usual but no additional flights were added to accommodate people attempting to depart the region ahead of the ban.
The decision to shut down the flights comes amid tensions over an overwhelming “yes” vote in an independence referendum held this week in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry ordered international airlines to halt service to Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city. Regional airlines have said they will honor the flight ban.
Many of the hundreds of people traveling Friday afternoon were foreigners ordered to leave the region by the companies they work for.
“Of course we don’t want to leave,” said Joao Gabriel Villar, a Brazilian doctor working for a non-governmental organization that helps people displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State group.
“We had only just arrived,” he said. “We could have helped many more people if we stayed.”
The nonbinding referendum — in which the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq — was billed by Kurdish leaders as an exercise in self-determination. The idea of an independent state has been central to Kurdish politics for decades.
Also on Friday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric expressed opposition to the referendum.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called it “an attempt to divide Iraq and take its northern part by setting up an independent state.”
Al-Sistani’s comments, read in the Shiite holy city of Karbala by cleric Ahmad al-Safi during Friday prayers, were the first by the top Shiite cleric since Monday’s referendum.
Al-Sistani warned such “unilateral steps” toward dividing Iraq will lead to internal and external reactions that will have consequences on our “dear Kurdish citizens and could have more dangerous repercussion.”
Earlier on Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the launch of the “second phase” of the operation to retake the Islamic State-held city of Hawija, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
Hawija is one of the last pockets of IS-held territory in Iraq. Iraqi forces are also fighting the extremists in the western province of Anbar where IS launched a counterattack against Iraqi forces holding the provincial capital of Ramadi Wednesday. The city had been declared “fully liberated” from the group in Feb. 2016.
Despite the threatened flight ban, anti-IS coalition military air operations from Irbil airport continue as normal, U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday from his headquarters in Baghdad.
More broadly, Dillon said the fallout from the Kurdish referendum has diminished the military’s focus on fighting IS.
“What I’ll say now is that there is a lot of posturing and a lot of things that have been said about what could or may happen,” he said. “The focus, which used to be like a laser beam on (IS), is now not 100 percent there. So there has been an effect on the overall mission to defeat (IS) in Iraq as a result of the referendum.”
Asked whether it is just the Iraqi security forces that have lost focus, he said the Peshmerga and U.S. military planners and advisers also have lost some of their focus as a result of the referendum. The loss of focus, he said, is “across the board.” U.S. military planners have had to spend time to “play out the what-ifs” that arise from the political and military implications of the referendum, he said.
Baghdad announced Thursday that Turkey — an indispensable trade partner to the region and once a key political ally — will now only deal with Iraq’s central government on oil sales. That could deprive the Kurdish region of more than 80 percent of its income.
Ankara had forged close ties to Iraq’s Kurdish region but strongly opposes its moves toward independence, fearing it could inspire Turkey’s own Kurdish minority. Turkey has threatened military action and economic sanctions against the region.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Robert Burns in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.