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Pressure Increases On Iraq's Kurds As Erdogan Threatens Oil Boycott

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Iranian President Hassan Rohani attend a joint news conference in Tehran, October 4, 2017

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region with shutting down its oil exports, which is the economic lifeline of the region.

Speaking to Turkish media after his trip to Tehran, Erdogan said that Turkey, Iran and the Iraqi central government will decide together if oil exports from Kurdistan should be stopped. Erdogan added that Iraq's Kurdish region would come to its senses and turn back from its decision.

Kurds in northern Iraq last week voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. But the Baghdad central government, its neighbors and Western powers fear the vote could spark further conflict in the Middle East to add to the war in Syria.

"If a decision will be made on closing oil taps in the region, that will be made by us. Turkey, Iran and Iraq's central government will do so together," Erdogan was quoted as saying.

"The northern Iraqi leadership is drunk with the result of the referendum, it's not aware of what it is doing or what kind of steps it's taking," he said.

Iran and Turkey have already threatened to join Baghdad in imposing economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan and have launched joint military exercises with Iraqi troops on their borders.

Erdogan also criticized the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in the referendum, saying that Kurds had no legitimacy there and that they were "invaders" in the region.

Turkey and Iran have sizable Kurdish populations of their own and are highly sensitive to the dangers of separatism on their own soil.

Turkey has suffered from a protracted insurgency by the Kurdish Workers Party, PKK, since the 1980’s, in a conflict that has left tens of thousands of casualties.

During a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday, Erdogan said Turkey was considering further measures against northern Iraq, and the two leaders promised to work together against the independence drive.

Last month, Russian oil major Rosneft clinched a gas pipeline deal in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan to help it become a major exporter of gas to Turkey and Europe. The pipeline will be constructed in 2019 and exports will begin in 2020.

On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that it was in no-one's interest to cut off oil supplies from Iraq's Kurdistan, which would raise oil prices.

Erdogan, however, brushed off those concerns, saying the final decision would be made by Turkey, Iran and Iraq.

Meanwhile, Iraq's prime minister said on Thursday he did not want an armed clash with Kurdish Iraqi authorities and urged Peshmerga forces in disputed areas to work with Iraqi security forces under the control of the central government.

"We do not want an armed confrontation, we don't want clashes, but the federal authority must prevail and nobody can infringe on the federal authority," Haider al-Abadi said in a statement alongside French President Emmanuel Macron.

"I call on the Peshmerga to remain an integral part of the Iraqi forces under the authority of the federal authorities, to guarantee the security of citizens so that we can rebuild these zones," he said, referring areas taken back from Islamic State militants.

"Separatism is unacceptable," Abadi said, reiterating that the non-binding September 25 vote -- in which 92.7 percent of Iraqi Kurds backed independence -- was "illegal".

"Iraq belongs to all Iraqis," he said, appealing to Kurdish Peshmerga forces to work with the Iraqi army "as we have worked together against Daesh (the Islamic State group), to guarantee citizens' safety."

Macron voiced support for Kurds' rights while defending Iraq's territorial unity.

In the meantime, Saudi Arabia’s king who is visiting Moscow, said that the territorial integrity of Iraq must be preserved.

With reporting by Reuters and AFP