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New Haven Native Serves As Kurdish Independence Vote Observer

Bram Janssen
Children holding Kurdish flags run on the streets of the disputed city of Kirkuk on Monday.

The Iraqi prime minister has vowed to keep his country together following Monday’s Kurdish referendum. He has ordered that the Kurdish region hand over airports to Iraqi federal authorities by Friday or face a flight ban.

New Haven, Connecticut, native Daniel Smith is a freelance researcher, who worked as an observer for the referendum.

WSHU’s Senior Political Reporter Ebong Udoma reached Smith in the Kurdish capital of Irbil by Skype on Wednesday to find out how people are reacting to the ultimatum.

Below is a transcript of their conversation. Smith starts with a brief description of what is happening in the area.

It’s the early evening now, news reports were coming out that the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad, the federal government, is reacting pretty hostilely to the referendum. Among other things, it’s calling on other nations to not accept air travel from the Kurdistan region and not to trade with the Kurdistan region. And also it got a very hostile reaction from Turkey and Iran. So, the feeling is changing.

What’s the reaction of the local population right now? You were telling me about some foreigners who were anxious to get out of that area?

Yeah, there’s a great deal of foreigners here working, different NGOs, as teachers, as certain businesses, for the U.N., embassies. There’s a rush of people now trying to get on the very limited flights out before Friday afternoon. It’s unclear when it would actually get shut down, but I’ve talked to a couple of airlines, and they are saying after Friday late morning or afternoon, depending on when their flights are scheduled, they’re not flying anymore and they have no answer as to when it might be over. You know it looks like at this point it’s shutting down…

Well I understand here that the [Iraqi] Prime Minister Al-Abadi has ordered the Kurdish region to hand over control of its airports to the federal Iraqi authorities by Friday. And because of that, international airlines have said they’re not flying into the Kurdish region after Friday. That’s what I understand, that the transportation minister for the Kurdish region says he’s trying to negotiate with Baghdad so they can take control of the air traffic but allow flights to continue to come.

The idea of them taking control of the air traffic, it’s really for all intents and purposes a different country as far as the airports and things like that up here in Kurdistan. And the idea that flights would have to be rerouted through Baghdad is very worrisome to a lot of people because there’s a lot of people up here that wouldn’t have a good relationship with the Baghdad government, and a lot of foreigners that don’t have visa, an Iraqi visa is very difficult to get, and almost all of the foreigners here don’t have one. So there’s a question, what would that be like having to travel through Baghdad if it’s rerouted or another airport, which is one of the possibilities being mentioned.

Also, I understand that in northern Iraq, in the Kurdish region, people are very friendly to the United States. What’s the reception to Americans there?

Very, very positive. And throughout Iraq, when I would meet people, one-on-one, are usually very nice, but they often aren’t very happy about the government. And up here, it’s very pro-American. People feel much better off as a result of the U.S. invasion, so George W. Bush is extremely popular. I found Obama to be pretty darn popular as well. Trump had a bit of popularity when he got elected, a lot of people started naming their kids Trump as a first name, and restaurants and such. But a lot of people aren’t quite sure as things progress, but he’s still pretty popular as well.

Thank you very much, Daniel, hope to talk with you again soon.

OK, you too.