ISTANBUL/BAGHDAD: Turkey said on Saturday it would take security and other steps in response to a planned independence referendum in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region that it called a “terrible mistake”, as a Kurdish delegation arrived in Baghdad for talks.
The Turkish parliament convened at 4pm for a debate and vote on extending a mandate that authorizes Turkish troop deployments to Iraq and Syria, and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim alluded to possible military moves.
The United States and other Western powers have also urged authorities in the semi-autonomous Iraqi region to cancel Monday’s vote. They say the move by the oil-producing Kurdish area distracts from the fight against Daesh.
In Iraq, a Kurdistan regional government delegation arrived in Baghdad for talks with the Iraqi government in an effort to defuse tensions, but a senior Kurdish official said the vote was going ahead.
“The delegation will discuss the referendum but the referendum is still happening,” Hoshiyar Zebari, a top adviser to Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, told Reuters.
Turkey, which has NATO’s second-largest army, said on Friday that the Iraqi vote would threaten its security and force it to slap sanctions on a neighbour and trading partner, although it did not specify what measures it might take.
Asked on Saturday if a cross-border operation was among the options, Yildirim told reporters: “Naturally, it is a question of timing as to when security, economic and security options are implemented. Developing conditions will determine that.”
Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population in the region and itself fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its soil, but it is also the main conduit for oil exports from Iraq’s Kurdish region. It has said that any break-up of neighbouring Iraq or Syria could lead to a global conflict.
In a speech to parliament, Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli voiced concern about the referendum’s impact on the region’s ethnic and sectarian relationships, saying it could trigger an “uncontrollable fire”.
“Pulling out just a brick from a structure based on very sensitive and fragile balances will sow the seeds for new hatred, enmity and clashes,” he said.
A particular area of concern is the multi-ethnic oil city of Kirkuk, which lies outside the recognized boundaries of the autonomous Kurdish region and is claimed by Baghdad.
It is dominated by Kurds but is also home to Arabs, Assyrian Christians and Turkmen — of whom Turkey has long seen itself as the protector.
The spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan also kept up the diplomatic pressure.
“If the referendum is not cancelled, there will be serious consequences. Erbil must immediately refrain from this terrible mistake, which will trigger new crises in the region,” spokesman Ibrahim Kalin tweeted.
Militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched a rocket and mortar attack from the Iraqi side of the border on Turkey’s Semdinli district on Saturday, killing one Turkish soldier and a worker in the area of a military base, the Hakkari governor’s office said in a statement.
The PKK launched its separatist insurgency in 1984. More than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. It is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Erdogan, who chaired back-to-back meetings of Turkey’s cabinet and National Security Council on Friday to discuss the situation, was expected to attend Saturday’s parliamentary session, which was expected to extend the Turkish troop deployment in the region.
The Iraqi army’s chief of staff, Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanmi, met his Turkish counterpart, General Hulusi Akar, in Turkey and they discussed the “illegitimate” referendum, Turkey’s military said.
“The importance of maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and political unity was stressed once again,” it said.
The Turkish army launched military exercises on Monday near the Habur border crossing to Iraq. Military sources said they were due to last until Sept. 26, the day after the planned vote.
Turkey has for years been northern Iraq’s main link to the outside world. It has built strong trade ties with the semi-autonomous region, which exports hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day through Turkey to international markets.