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The YPG is a dominant force within the Syrian Democratic Forces. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group. Video provided by Newsy Newslook

An Iraqi Kurdish man poses as he carries a child wearing the Kurdish flag on his head during a celebration in the northern city of Kirkuk on Sept. 25, 2017.(Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye, AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — A controversial Kurdish referendum on whether to seek independence from Baghdad threatens to weaken the U.S.-backed fight against the Islamic State by heightening political tensions in Iraq.

Monday’s vote in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region could undermine a delicate military and political balance that has been instrumental in defeating the Islamic State in battles across Iraq and Syria, analysts said.

The United States has opposed the referendum, saying it has already hurt military coordination between the Kurds and Iraq’s military in the fight against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.

The polls have closed across Iraq’s Kurdish region, and initial results are expected Tuesday. The outcome will likely be “yes” for independence, although the vote is not binding and would not result in independence soon. 

The Kurds have long harbored for an independent state but put aside those aspirations to support Iraq’s central government in recent years.

“There was still a fundamental cooperation where it really mattered — at the Baghdad political level and with the national army,” said Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution. “Now all that is being jeopardized.”

The Kurds have their own military forces, called the peshmerga, which have been instrumental in stopping ISIS when it swept through Iraq three years ago. At the time Iraq’s national forces were in disarray and largely melted away in the face of the onslaught.

The Kurds have continued to fight alongside Iraq’s national army as ISIS militants have been driven from the country.

Now, the Kurds have control of a number of disputed areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, raising suspicions that the non-binding referendum is a veiled first step toward a land grab.

Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president, said the non-binding referendum would be a first step in a process to negotiate independence, the Associated Press reported.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the vote “unconstitutional” and said it is a “danger to the region.”

“We will take measures to safeguard the nation’s unity and protect all Iraqis,” he said in a televised address Sunday from Baghdad.

The Kurds have participated in a successful battle to expel militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and and a string of other battles that have placed ISIS on its last legs in Iraq.

Across the border, Syrian Kurds are a central part of the U.S.-backed forces fighting militants in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital. The offensive has retaken 70% of the city from ISIS.

Political tensions triggered by the referendum could jeopardize those gains. “Trends in Iraqi governance and politics have a direct relationship with what happens on the battlefield,” O’Hanlon said.

The referendum has also antagonized Iraq’s neighbors. Turkey and Iran have both condemned the vote. Both countries have sizable Kurdish minorities and fear a move for independence could embolden those populations in their own borders.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to send troops into Iraq if conditions threaten his country. He said Monday that Kurdish independence was unacceptable to Turkey and this was a “matter of survival,” the AP reported. 

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