The Iraqi government cut autonomous Kurdistan’s direct air links with the outside world indefinitely on Friday, partially isolating the northern region after it voted a massive “yes” in an independence referendum.
The move increases the pressure on the Iraqi Kurds amid soaring regional tensions following Monday’s non-binding but deeply contentious vote.
Washington said it did not recognise the “unilateral” referendum and urged all parties to reject the use of force and engage in dialogue.
“The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
The central government in Baghdad had ordered the halt to all foreign flights to and from the autonomous Kurdish region on Friday.
Foreigners scrambled to fly out of the region’s capital Arbil and its second largest city Sulaimaniyah before the ban took effect.
Iraqi Kurdish transport minister Mawlud Bawa Murad said at Arbil airport that the ban would “negatively impact all international businesses in the Kurdistan region, in addition to all civilians, from all nations”.
It would “negatively impact our daily life,” he said. “We will do our best to find a viable alternative, or succeed to bring back international flights.”
Arbil is a key gateway for humanitarian aid workers helping Iraqis affected by the battle against the Daish group (IS).
Washington said earlier it would be willing to facilitate talks between the Iraqi Kurdish authorities and Baghdad to calm escalating tensions over the 92-per cent “yes” vote.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran also strongly opposed the vote, fearing it would inflame the separatist aspirations of their own sizeable Kurdish populations.
Ankara has threatened a series of measures including blocking lifeline oil exports from the region via Turkey.
The Kurds, whose borders with Turkey, Iran and Syria remain open, have condemned the flight suspension as “collective punishment”.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi said it was not “punishment” but a legal measure that would be reversed if the transport authority was transferred to Baghdad in line with the Iraqi constitution.
The ban saw people, many of them foreigners, flock to Arbil airport to avoid being stranded.
Iraqi Kurdistan is home to a large international community, most of whom enter on a visa issued by the regional authorities that is not recognised by the central government, so they cannot travel elsewhere in Iraq.
On Friday, around 100 passengers waited eagerly for their planes in Arbil, where the last flight out was to Vienna at 4 pm.