Turkey suspended all flights on Friday to cities in northern Iraq under the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) authority.
According to a statement released by the Turkish Consulate in Irbil, Turkish Airlines, Pegasus and AtlasJet have halted all flights to Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. Most Turkish citizens in the region returned to Turkey on Friday on the last flights out of northern Iraq while Iraqi citizens who came to Turkey on vacation also returned.
On Tuesday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave the KRG three days to hand over the airports that are under its control to avoid an air embargo. Following Abadi's statement, the Turkish Consulate in Irbil announced on Wednesday that flights from Turkey to northern Iraq would be suspended as of Friday.
"In this case, it will not be possible for Turkish Airlines, AtlasGlobal, or Pegasus to carry out mutual flights from our country to Irbil or Sulaymaniyah as of Sept. 29," the consulate said.
Almost all foreign airlines suspended flights to the airports in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah in compliance with a notice from the government in Baghdad, which has control over the country's airspace.
Domestic flights are still permitted to and from the KRG, and so travelers are expected to get there mostly by transiting via Baghdad's airport, which will come under strain from the extra traffic.
Kurdish airports handle 40 to 50 percent of Iraq's total international traffic, Taher Abdallah, Sulaymaniyah airport's director general, told reporters on Wednesday. Check-in operations at Irbil's international airport were running smoothly on Friday morning and there was no sign of disruption.
Yet, Rudaw TV, based in Irbil, cited a KRG official on Friday who said that the KRG refused to relinquish control of its border crossings to the Iraqi government.
On Friday, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that the demands of the Iraqi federal government will be determinant in Turkey's next step against the KRG. Speaking at a joint press conference with Colombian Foreign Minister Maria Angela Holguin in Istanbul, Çavuşoğlu said that KRG President Masoud Barzani's government should retreat from the decision of independence.
"We gave travel warnings to our people. We can provide assistance to our citizens who want to return to Turkey. That would not be a problem. We gave our warnings, the rest is up to our citizens," he said. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım also said on Friday that Ankara's response to the "illegitimate" referendum in northern Iraq would only target "those who decided to hold it," not the civilians living there.
Speaking in Istanbul, Yıldırım said the KRG administration had made a mistake by holding the referendum on Monday despite strong opposition from all neighboring countries, including Turkey, Iran, and Iran's central government.
"Any measures we take will be against those who made this mistake," he said, adding that that KRG administration in Irbil had made a grave mistake by lighting "the fire of separation," warning that this would fuel problems in the region, which has been suffering from Daesh terrorism as well as various Iraqi insurgents and occupations. "We will not make the people living there, the civilians, pay for this, in any way," Yıldırım added, saying that taking measures against innocent people would violate Turkish tradition and its future vision.
He stressed that Ankara has no problem with its "Kurdish brothers," as Turks, Kurds and other ethnic groups live in "unity and fellowship" in Turkey.
On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry stated that Turkey has taken a clear stance before and after the "illegitimate" KRG referendum in response to recent remarks from the U.S. on the issue.
"The entire international community should present a consistent, unhesitant, and clear stance on protecting Iraq's territorial integrity and political union at the current stage," Ministry spokesman Hüseyin Müftüoğlu said in a written statement. His remarks were in response to U.S. State Department's spokeswoman Heather Nauert, who was asked Tuesday to comment on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saying that in the wake of the referendum that Turkey could easily make the KRG's revenues dry up, and if Turkish trucks did not go to the KRG, they would not be able to get food or clothes. Nauert said: "That certainly sounds like a threat on the part of President Erdoğan. But I'm not going to comment on what he's had to say."
The U.S. said Thursday it is willing to facilitate talks between the KRG and the Iraqi central government, if asked.
Tensions between Irbil and Baghdad soared after Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence from the central government earlier this week in a nonbinding referendum.
"The United States, if asked, would be willing to help facilitate a conversation between the two," Nauert told reporters. "But I want to be clear about that, if asked. If we were asked to assist in any way."
The poll has been denounced by Iraq and its neighbors, who view it as illegitimate. Later on Thursday, the Iraqi foreign ministry announced that the U.N. offered to mediate between Iraq's central government and the KRG after the referendum.
"The U.N. is ready to help you solve the problem with the KRG. The international community supports the territorial integrity of Iraq," the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement, which was released after Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Jaafari's meeting with U.N. Iraq envoy Jan Kubis in Baghdad.
"Iraq has become the center of attention for the whole world, especially after its victory against the Daesh terrorist organization," the statement added. Jaafari called for the U.N. to play a more effective role in Iraq and pointed that all Iraqi provinces contributed in the country's fight against Daesh, which showed sectarian and ethnical unity inside Iraq.