Iraqi Kurds voted Monday in a non-binding independence referendum opposed by the Baghdad government, the U.S., the United Nations, Turkey and Iran.
The referendum, expected to result in an overwhelming "Yes" vote, was taking place in the three northern Iraqi provinces controlled by the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as well as in disputed areas such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Last week, the U.S. military warned that the referendum would be a "distraction" in the final stages of the fight to rout ISIS by the Iraqi Security Forces backed by U.S. advisers, trainers and airstrikes.
In a video briefing to the Pentagon from Baghdad, Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation inherent Resolve, noted that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had just ordered assaults by the Iraqi Security Forces on the last two ISIS strongholds -- Al Qaim in western Anbar province, and the north-central city of Hawija.
"There is a distraction from the fight against ISIS" in the battle for Hawija resulting from the referendum, Dillon said. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, who had been expected to join the assault in Hawija have been holding back in cooperation with the ISF, Dillon said.
"We estimate that there are 800 to 1,500 ISIS fighters that are in the Hawija area," Dillon said. "The Peshmerga are not a part of the elements that are conducting the advance, but they will very much likely play a part because of the proximity of the Kurdish defensive line," he said.
Although the referendum was not binding, Kurdish officials have said it would put them on a path to realizing a century-old dream of an independent state for the 5.2 million Kurds of northern Iraq. Over the weekend, crowds flocked to rallies in Irbil, capital of the Kurdish region, chanting "Bye Bye Iraq."
"From now on, Kurdistan will be a neighbor of Iraq, but not part of it," Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, said Sunday. He said that Kurds were opting to separate from the "theocratic sectarian state" of Iraq.
In an address Sunday night, Abadi suggested that the referendum could lead to conflict between the Peshmerga and the ISF. He said Iraq would "take the necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country."
Turkey and Iran, which have large Kurdish minorities, have conducted military exercises on the eastern and western borders of the Kurdish region, and Turkey has openly warned of a possible intervention.
In Istanbul Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said "We may enter at night without warning," and he also threatened to cut off an oil pipeline from the Kurdish region into Turkey.
Last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, President Donald Trump met with Erdogan and both urged the Kurds to call off the referendum.
A White House readout of the meeting said that "The two leaders reaffirmed their rejection of the planned Kurdistan Regional Government's referendum on September 25th, and the serious consequences that would follow if it occurs."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.