Iraqi Kurds’ decision to hold an independence referendum Monday may foil the current U.S. strategy to defeat the Islamic State.
The Kurdish referendum met nearly universal international opposition and anger from the federal government in Baghdad. Kurdish supporters of the referendum, including Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani, say they are a distinct people undermined by their inclusion in the state of Iraq.
Iraqi Arab leaders say they understand the Kurds’ concerns, but believe any differences can be resolved through negotiations with the federal government. The Iraqi Supreme Court declared the referendum nullified before it even took place and some lawmakers have indicated military action against the KRG is possible after the expected yes vote.
The U.S. and its allies have adamantly opposed the referendum, saying it distracts from the broader goal of defeating ISIS. The U.S. backed anti-ISIS coalition in cooperation with Kurdish and Iraqi Security Forces have made significant progress against the terrorist group in Iraq. The gains against the terrorist group are tenuous however, and the U.S. fears violence in Iraq will just give ISIS the space to rise up once again.
Kurdish authorities are also holding the referendum in disputed areas of control which more than anything could trigger a military confrontation with Baghdad. The country’s parliament demanded Monday that Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi deploy troops to “all of the zones the autonomous region of Kurdistan has taken control of since 2003.”
“Already the referendum has negatively affected Defeat-ISIS coordination to dislodge ISIS from its remaining areas of control in Iraq. The decision to hold the referendum in disputed areas is especially de-stabilizing, raising tensions which ISIS and other extremist groups are now seeking to exploit,” the U.S. Department of State said Wednesday.
Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon similarlytold reporters Thursday that “there is a distraction from the fight against ISIS” because of the referendum.
The referendum could also trigger conflict with Kurdistan’s neighbors, Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding military exercises on the Turkish-Kurdish border and even indicated his forces could slip into the country to restore order. “We could arrive suddenly one night,” he declared.
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