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Iranian Guard drills near Iraq ahead of Kurdish referendum

TEHRAN — Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard launched a military exercise yesterday in its northwestern Kurdish region just ahead of Iraqi Kurds voting in an independence referendum, in a sign of Tehran's concerns over the vote.

Iran also closed its airspace yesterday to flights taking off from Iraq's Kurdish region following an Iraqi request, "due to the ineffectiveness of our political efforts and the insistence of Kurdistan authorities to hold a referendum."

Iraq's Kurds are set to vote Monday in a referendum on support for independence. The Kurds are likely to approve the referendum, but the non-binding vote is not expected to result in any formal declaration of independence.

The Guard, a paramilitary force answerable only to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on its website that airborne and missile units would take part in the exercise. State television aired footage of explosions and smoke rising as part of the drill, in the mountains of Iran's own Kurdish region.

"We are holding a drill here," Gen. Mohammad Pakpour, the commander of the Guard's ground forces, said in the footage. "God willing, artillery, armored (divisions), drones and commandos will hold a well-coordinated exercise."

Turkey, which is also home to a large Kurdish minority and opposes the vote, is holding military drills near its own border with Iraq.

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Iran's semi-official ISNA news agency reported that the Supreme National Security Council closed Iranian airspace to the Iraqi Kurdish area at the request of the central government in Baghdad.

Iran and Iraq have been close allies since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled dictator Saddam Hussein. Both are opposed to Kurdish independence, and Baghdad has said the referendum is unconstitutional.

In a rare moment of agreement, Saudi Arabia has come out on the same side as its arch regional rival, Iran. It has publicly called for the vote not to move forward, citing current regional conditions and the potential for the vote to ignite a new crisis.

The 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation on yesterday also voiced its "deep concern" over the planned referendum, saying it runs against the constitution of Iraq and could have a negative impact on Iraq's ability to fight terrorism.

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