Turkey sees high stakes in Iraqi Kurds' independence vote

Turkey is strongly opposed to the referendum Iraqi Kurds are holding on whether their semi-autonomous region should seek independence from Baghdad. The Turkish government has threatened economic and military action. Here's what you need to know about Ankara's interest in the vote:



Turkey has a large ethnic Kurdish population and has been fighting an insurgency by rebels of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, for more than three decades. The Turkish government and its allies list PKK as a terror organization.

Turkey fears that moves toward independence by the Iraqi Kurds would encourage Turkish Kurdish aspirations for a separate homeland and further embolden the PKK. Kurds make up an estimated 15-20 percent of Turkey's population of 80 million.

The nonbinding referendum is being held not only in the official Iraqi Kurdish region, but disputed territories such as oil-rich and ethnically divided Kirkuk. Turkey has ethnic and historic ties to Kirkuk's Turkmen population, sees the move as an attempt by Iraq's Kurds to annex more land.

There are also fears that turmoil in Iraq could destabilize the region and increase the number of refugees heading into Turkey, which already is grappling with 3 million Syrian refugees.



Many Kurds living in the predominantly Kurdish-populated region in southeast Turkey have expressed support for the Iraqi Kurdish region's decision to hold the independence referendum.

The country's pro-Kurdish political party also backs the vote, saying Iraqi Kurds have the right to self-determination. The leader of the People's Democratic Party and some 10 other party legislators have been jailed for alleged links to Kurdish rebels that they deny.

The party has called on Turkey to refrain from making threats and to respect the referendum.



Turkey has forged close economic and security ties with the bordering Iraqi Kurdish region over the last decade, so the independence vote creates a dilemma for Ankara.

Turkey considers the Iraqi Kurds allies in the fight against the PKK. The Iraqi Kurdish administration has largely tolerated Turkey's military actions on PKK bases and hideouts in northern Iraq and allowed it to maintain its own military bases.

Turkey nevertheless launched military exercises at the border with northern Iraq last week in an apparent warning to the Iraqi Kurds. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened military action over the referendum, saying the issue was a "matter of survival" for Turkey.

Turkey says it is weighing economic options, including shutting down a border crossing, stopping oil flows from a pipeline and restricting flights. The landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region exports its oil through a pipeline to Turkey, while the Turkish state is a main source for Iraqi Kurds' imports.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey no longer will consider the region as a political entity with authority over borders, pipelines and air space and will deal with central government in Baghdad instead.