Kurdish Peshmerga Could Back Off ISIS Fight in Iraq: Dunford

In this April 9, 2016 photo, residents visit the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Headquarters in Rabia, Iraq. (AP Photo/Alice Martins)
In this April 9, 2016 photo, residents visit the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Headquarters in Rabia, Iraq. (AP Photo/Alice Martins)

Cooperation between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) was no longer a given following the independence referendum in the Kurdish region, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford said Tuesday.

Kurdish forces had played a major role in the war against ISIS in northern Iraq, including the battle for Mosul, but "I'm concerned that the referendum will disrupt that cooperation," Dunford said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Dunford said the U.S. had been expecting that the Peshmerga would join in the assault by the ISF to retake north-central Hawija from ISIS, but that effort by the Kurds was now in doubt.

The non-binding referendum Monday appeared to have passed overwhelmingly in what the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) saw as a first step in realizing the century-old dream of establishing a Kurdish state in northern Iraq despite opposition from the U.S., the United Nations, Turkey, Iran and most of all the central Baghdad government.

Preliminary results showed that turnout was more than 77 percent and the "Yes" vote was coming in at more than 90 percent, the Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported. Final results were expected Wednesday.

Kurds celebrated Monday night in the streets of Irbil, capital of the KRG that has enjoyed a great deal of autonomy since the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

KRG President Massoud Barzani said he wanted to enter negotiations with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on a peaceful transition to secession but vowed "We will never go back to the failed partnership" with Baghdad.

Abadi rejected negotiations and demanded that control of the airports in Erbil and Sulaimaniya be handed over to the Baghdad government by Friday, raising the prospect that the airspace over the Kurdish region could be closed along with land crossings to the rest of Iraq.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani consulted by phone on the referendum and both expressed concern that the vote "will bring chaos to the region," according to Erdogan's office.

Both Iran and Turkey have also begun military exercises on the western and eastern frontiers of the Kurdish region.

"If Barzani and the Kurdish regional government do not go back on this mistake as soon as possible, they will go down in history with the shame of having dragged the region into an ethnic and sectarian war," Erdogan said.

"Frankly, we did not give credence until the last moment that Barzani would make a mistake like this," Erdogan said, according to Turkey's Andalou news agency.

--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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