Foreigners leave Iraqi Kurdistan to avoid being 'stuck'

AFP , Thursday 28 Sep 2017

Bag on his back and suitcase in tow, Khider Ahmad stands at the Arbil airport eagerly awaiting his flight out of Iraqi Kurdistan to leave while he still can.

Baghdad has suspended all international flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan from Friday in retaliation for this week's referendum at which 92.7 percent voted for independence.

"I was supposed to travel next week but I changed my flight to today because, as everyone expects, all the flights next week will be cancelled," says Ahmad, a logistics coordinator for an international NGO.

"I am trying to avoid being stuck" here, adds the tall South Sudanese national with a hennaed beard, who has spent two years in Iraqi Kurdistan.

A large number of foreigners left the autonomous region on Thursday after the Iraqi government decided to suspend flights to and from the airports in Arbil and the region's second-largest city Sulaimaniyah.

The measure came after Monday's independence referendum, which delivered a resounding 92.7 percent "yes", but which Baghdad has declared illegal.

Arbil airport director Talar Faiq Saleh said she hoped the flight suspension would not last long.

"We have an international community here, so this is not going to be only against Kurdish people," said the head of the airport, which was festooned with Kurdish flags.

Foreigners -- and even a few Kurds -- checked in their luggage with foreign airlines for flights out of Arbil on Thursday, not knowing how long the ban would last.

Zenat Drown, an American humanitarian worker of Afghan origin, was leaving with her two young sons after three years living in Iraqi Kurdistan.

"We are leaving due to the referendum. I mean, shutting down the airport and all of that," said Drown, the founder of an organisation working with the victims of the Islamic State group.

Drown and her children would head back to the United States and remain there until the situation calmed down, she said, clutching her family's passports and tickets.

On Wednesday, Iraqi lawmakers passed a resolution calling on Iraqi premier to "take all necessary measures to maintain Iraq's unity" including by deploying security forces to disputed areas.

There are no boots on the ground yet, but it's the fear of remaining stranded in the Kurdish region that has pushed foreigners to leave.

Baghdad does not recognise passport visas issued by the regional Kurdish authorities, and foreigners cannot travel elsewhere in Iraq on them.

With flights from the Arbil and Sulaimaniyah airports set to be suspended, researchers, aid workers, journalists and construction workers without a federal visa have packed their bags.

The French consulate has called on all nationals without a visa from the federal government to leave before Friday.

Not far off, a group of young Indian workers sat near their suitcases.

One of them, a 32-year-old electrician, said his employer had told him he should leave in case the situation worsened and he no longer could.

The young Indian had not returned home for a year, he said, and so he was delighted.

Short link: