By SUSANNAH GEORGE
IRBIL, Iraq — Hundreds of passengers lined up in the hours before an Iraqi government order that international airlines halt all flights in and out of the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah in Kurdish territory kicks in Friday.
Airport officials speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations said the volume of passengers was higher than usual but no additional flights were added to accommodate people attempting to depart the region ahead of the ban.
The decision to shut down the flights comes amid tensions over an overwhelming “yes” vote in an independence referendum held this week in Iraq’s Kurdish region and disputed territories.
Iraq’s Transport Ministry ordered international airlines to halt service to Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and Sulaimaniyah, its second city. Regional airlines have said they will honor the flight ban.
Many of the hundreds of people traveling Friday afternoon were foreigners ordered to leave the region by the companies they work for.
“Of course we don’t want to leave,” said Joao Gabriel Villar, a Brazilian doctor working for a non-governmental organization that helps people displaced by the conflict with the Islamic State group.
“We had only just arrived,” he said. “We could have helped many more people if we stayed.”
The nonbinding referendum — in which the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence from Iraq — was billed by Kurdish leaders as an exercise in self-determination. The idea of an independent state has been central to Kurdish politics for decades.
Also on Friday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric expressed opposition to the referendum.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called it “an attempt to divide Iraq and take its northern part by setting up an independent state.”
Al-Sistani’s comments, read in the Shiite holy city of Karbala by cleric Ahmad al-Safi during Friday prayers, were the first by the top Shiite cleric since Monday’s…