Baghdad ends air blockade of Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi authorities said on Tuesday they were lifting a nearly six-month air blockade imposed on Iraqi Kurdistan in response to its holding of an independence referendum.

Federal authorities imposed the blockade in September after Iraqi Kurdistan voted overwhelmingly for independence in a non-binding referendum rejected as illegal by the central government.

It was extended in December for two months and renewed in February for another possible three months. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement the airports of Kurdish regional capital Arbil and second city Sulaimaniyah would again be “open to international flights”.

The decision to lift the flight ban was made “after local Kurdish authorities accepted that central authorities retake control of the two airports,” the statement said.

The formal lifting of the blockade will take place in the next few days, Abadi’s spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told AFP.

“This will depend on how long it takes for employees of the central government to start working in the airports,” he said.

Iraqi Kurdish prime minister Nechirvan Barzani told a press conference shortly after the announcement that he “thanked Baghdad and Prime Minister Abadi because it is he who decided to reopen the airports”.

Since the flight ban went into force, all Kurdistan-bound international flights have been rerouted to Baghdad, which also imposed entry visas on foreigners wishing to visit the Kurdish region.

The flight ban was part of a battery of penalties inflicted on the Kurds as Baghdad sought to nullify the poll, with federal forces also seizing disputed oil-rich regions.

Baghdad demanded to take over passport control in airports in Kurdistan as well as customs issues.

Arbil had already agreed to that and control of airport security was the last stumbling block, an official told AFP at the end of February when the blockade was extended for another three months.

Abadi met with a Kurdish delegation on Tuesday, a senior Kurdish official confirmed to AFP on condition of anonymity, and the two sides agreed that the issues of security and passports would be entrusted to Baghdad.

Baghdad and Arbil have been engaged in a political and territorial struggle since the September 25 independence referendum.

Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga forces took control of the northern province of Kirkuk, home to key oilfields, in June 2014 after federal forces withdrew in the face of an offensive by the Islamic State group.

Late last year, following the failed independence push, federal forces recaptured the oilfields, severing a key financial lifeline for the Kurds.

This month the Iraqi parliament approved the 2018 budget in the absence of Kurdish lawmakers who boycotted the meeting to protest a cut in the amount allocated to their autonomous region.