Even with U.S.-backed Iraqi forces driving the last Islamic State fighters from Mosul, a big new cloud looms over the country's fragile stability if Iraqi Kurds go ahead with a planned referendum on independence from Baghdad, the top American commander in the country warned this week.
The September vote on whether the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) should secede from Iraq could reignite deep sectarian conflicts among the myriad ethnic groups populating northern Iraq's Nineveh Province, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told reporters at the Pentagon Tuesday.
The Kurds have long sought an independent state, a goal fiercely opposed by all the states that currently house Kurdish minorities -- Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey.
Iraqi Kurds, Arabs, ethnic Turkmen and Yazidis all flocked to the U.S.-backed coalition's banner two years ago, forging an uneasy alliances in order to halt Islamic State after it seized Mosul and much of western Iraq in 2014. But with Mosul, once Iraq's second-largest city, now in the hands of Iraqi forces, U.S. and coalition commanders are increasingly wary of any efforts that could shatter the post-Mosul political and military reconstruction, the three-star general said.
"The position of our government is that [the Kurdish referendum] is not helpful for the campaign -- right now certainly. It's not helpful in the coalition's fight [or] the world's fight against ISIS," Gen. Townsend said during a teleconference from Baghdad.
"My own view is that this effort by the KRG to have this independence referendum, whether it's the right thing to do or not, is not my position to judge. But I do think it'll have some kind of impact and apply additional friction to the campaign," said Gen. Townsend. "This is really hard, and we probably don't need any members of the team here doing things to make it harder."
That argument has been echoed by a number of American military leaders and diplomats who have voiced their opposition to the independence referendum vote since lawmakers in Irbil approved the plan last month.
But Iraqi Kurdish leaders, and their representatives in Washington, argue that Erbil's massive contribution to the Islamic State fight in Iraq has earned the semi-autonomous Iraqi region the political and moral leverage to push for independence. They say that of the many Kurdish, Christian and Turkmen-led political parties that weighed in on the referendum question, only a few minor parties have refused to participate in the upcoming vote.
"The holding of a referendum is the democratic right of the people of Kurdistan and will enable us, for the first time, to determine our future," the KRG's de facto representative in Washington said in a statement. "The outcome of the referendum will lead to negotiations with Baghdad, and we ask our friends in the United States to encourage that dialogue so that the settlement is a win-win for both sides."
KRG officials in Washington dismissed concerns the vote would disrupt U.S. or Iraqi-led efforts to complete the defeat of Islamic State in the country, saying the terror group poses as much a threat to Irbil as it does to Baghdad.
But critics continue to claim the move is a thinly veiled power grab by KRG President Masoud Barzani, who they argue is attempting to expand Kurdistan's territorial borders beyond what is outlined in the Iraqi constitution.
A successful referendum vote and subsequent independence bid could bring the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other key territory under Erbil's control.
In a speech to the European Parliament in Brussels, Mr. Barzani showed no signs of seeking a compromise in light of the Pentagon's concerns, saying delaying an independence vote would be more destabilizing than letting the referendum proceed.
"We have been frustrated at the nature of our [current] relations with Baghdad, [and] if we continue the same relationship, that would definitely lead to a bloody war, or we have to find a different formula and a different relationship with Baghdad," Mr. Barzani said. "Since we have failed to become two good partners, we have to choose to become two good neighbors."
U.S. military worries as Iraqi Kurds press for a fall independence vote.