Iraqi PM reopens Kurdish airports to international flights

FILE - In this Sept. 29, 2017 file photo, protestors stand outside the Irbil International Airport to oppose the flight ban issued by the Iraqi federal government, in Irbil, Iraq. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday, March 13, 2018, that he is reopening airports in Iraq's Kurdish region to international flights after federal authority was restored at the hubs. The announcement comes some six months after the airports were initially shut to international flights following a controversial referendum vote in northern Ira's self-ruled Kurdish region on independence from Baghdad. (AP Photo/Bram Janssen, File)
FILE - In this Sept. 27, 2017 file photo, a Kurdish flag hangs in the Irbil International Airport, Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Tuesday, March 13, 2018, that he is reopening airports in Iraq's Kurdish region to international flights after federal authority was restored at the hubs. The announcement comes some six months after the airports were initially shut to international flights following a controversial referendum vote in northern Ira's self-ruled Kurdish region on independence from Baghdad. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

BAGHDAD — Iraq is reopening airports in the country's Kurdish region to international flights after federal authority was restored at the hubs, according to a statement from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday.

The announcement comes some six months after the airports were initially shut to international flights following a controversial referendum vote in northern Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region that overwhelmingly backed independence from Baghdad.

The airports are due to open "within a few days" government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told The Associated Press.

Al-Abadi described the move as "a gift to the people of Kurdistan," during a meeting aired on Iraqi state television and added that the central government would also release salaries for government employees in the Kurdish region ahead of the celebration of the Kurdish new year later this month.

During the same meeting Tuesday, the interior minister added that 500 people suspected of having ties to the Islamic State group were handed over to the central government from the Kurdish region.

At a news conference in Irbil, the prime minister of Iraq's Kurdish region, Nechirvan Barzani, described al-Abadi's decision as "a step in the right direction," and said he would continue to work to resolve issues between the region and the central government.

The Kurdish independence vote last September, though non-binding, was held across the autonomous region's three provinces as well as in some disputed territories controlled by Iraqi Kurdish security forces but claimed by Baghdad.

The referendum was vehemently rejected by Baghdad and Iraq's other neighbors, ratcheting up tensions in the region on the heels of military victories against the Islamic State group.

The decision to lift the flight ban comes as Iraq is preparing for national elections slated to be held in May. Initially, al-Aabdi's tough line on Iraq's Kurds translated into widespread public support among his base in Iraq's Shiite-heartland.

However, Iraqi parliament remains deeply divided, raising fears of a protracted government formation process following national elections. Kurdish lawmakers boycotted a recent vote in parliament approving the country's 2018 budget.

Iraq's small landlocked Kurdish region has been increasingly isolated following the September referendum, straining relations with key allies such as the United States and neighboring Turkey.

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Associated Press writer Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq contributed to this report.

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