Sept. 22 (UPI) -- Leaders of Iraq's Kurdish minority said they will press ahead with an independence referendum despite the threat of sanctions by neighbors Iran and Turkey.
Kurds make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East and are spread among parts of Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. They have been an integral part of the U.S.-led strategy to counter the Islamic State in the region. Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga have been one of the most effective parts of a coalition of forces countering IS fighters.
Although the Kurds were a significant part of the battle to retake the Iraqi city Mosul -- and were solely responsible for liberating scores of small towns and villages in northern and western Iraq from Islamic State control -- the move toward independence is seen as a bold and controversial one, even if it has no formal meaning.
Under Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein government, the Kurds have significant autonomy. The three northern states that are predominantly Kurdish are governed by a separate president and parliament. They control their own economy, including profits from oil exports, and the border crossings with neighbors.
An independent Kurdistan would be a blow to Iraq's central government and is opposed by neighboring states with Kurdish populations who are worried their own populations could be emboldened to hold similar referenda.
Following meetings at the United Nations General Assembly, the foreign ministers of Turkey and Iran promised they would undertake "coordinated measures" to counter the Kurdish referendum.
Turkey's NATO allies have also opposed the referendum, with U.S. President Donald Trump releasing a statement saying there would be "serious consequences" for Iraq's Kurds if they went ahead with the symbolic vote.