ANKARA - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened a military intervention in Iraq in response to the Iraqi Kurdish region's referendum on independence from Baghdad.
Polls opened in Iraq's Kurdish-run provinces and disputed territories as Iraqi Kurds cast ballots in support for independence from Baghdad in a historic but non-binding vote on Monday.
Millions are expected to vote across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The election is being carried out despite mounting regional opposition to the move. The United States (US) has warned the vote will likely destabilise the region amid the fight with the militant Islamic State (IS) group.
Baghdad has also come out strongly against the referendum, demanding that all airports and borders crossings in the Kurdish region be handed back to federal government control on Sunday.
Erdogan, speaking at a conference in the Turkish capital of Ankara as Iraqi Kurds voted in their region on Monday, said that Kurdish independence was unacceptable to his country and that this was a “matter of survival".
He pointed to Turkish military exercises currently taking place on Turkey 's border with the Iraqi Kurdish region.
Erdogan said: “Our military is not (at the border) for nothing,” he said, adding that the Turkish military "could arrive suddenly one night".
Erdogan also said Turkey would take political, economic as well as military measures against Iraqi Kurds' steps toward independence and also suggested that Turkey could halt oil flows from a pipeline from northern Iraq.
“Let's see where and through which channels will they sell their oil," he challenged. "We have the valve. The moment we shut the valve, that's the end of it.”
Erdogan said a border crossing with Iraq had been closed in one direction and that Turkey would shut it entirely.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country is considering closing down its airspace as well as a border gate to northern Iraq, in response to a referendum on independence in Iraq's Kurdish region and disputed territories a vote that Turkey strongly opposes.
Yildirim also said on Monday that officers and experts from Iraq's army would join military exercises that Turkey launched along the border in an apparent warning to the Iraqi Kurds.
The Turkish premier said Ankara would from now on “enter a strong” dialogue with Baghdad, saying it regarded the central government in the Iraqi capital as the legitimate authority over border crossings, airports and oil trade in the Kurdish region.
He said Turkey had received a formal request from Baghdad requesting the closure of the airspace and border crossing.
Yildirim also suggested that Turkey would take action if the Turkmen population came under attack or if Turks encountered “obstructions or problems” at the border crossing.