By Idris Okuducu
ERBIL, Iraq (AA) – Iraq’s strategic Erbil-Kirkuk highway has been shut — bringing commercial traffic to a halt — following recent military deployments by Baghdad in the country’s oil-rich Kirkuk province.
An important trade route that extends into Turkey, the highway was closed amid ongoing political tension caused by last month’s illegitimate referendum on Kurdish regional independence.
According to witnesses, Peshmerga fighters loyal to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) were only allowing vehicles with local license plates to enter Kirkuk.
Vehicles coming from Turkey and other parts of the Kurdish region, meanwhile, were prevented from entering the city.
The closures have reportedly brought traffic along the usually busy thoroughfare to a standstill.
Dildar Abdullah, an Iraqi truck driver, complained bitterly about the resultant five-kilometer traffic jam.
“Under these conditions, I’ll never reach Kirkuk,” he lamented, while waiting to pass through a Peshmerga checkpoint on the city’s outskirts.
Earlier this week, Iraqi forces moved into the northern Kirkuk province — along with other disputed parts of Iraq — following the withdrawal of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
Tension has steadily mounted between Baghdad and the KRG since Sept. 25, when Iraqis in KRG-controlled areas — and in several disputed parts of the country — voted on whether or not to declare political independence.
According to poll results later announced by the KRG, almost 93 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor of independence.
The illegitimate referendum faced sharp opposition from most regional and international actors (including the U.S., Turkey and Iran), who had warned that the poll would distract from Iraq’s fight against terrorism and further destabilize the region.