The impending Kurdish referendum for independence will have significant consequences for the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, said Brett McGurk, the U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter IS. He asked Kurdish leadership to halt the vote in exchange for a plan proposed by the United States, the United Nations and the United Kingdom.
"We would obviously very much encourage the political leaders here in the Kurdistan region to embrace this alternative path," McGurk said in a press conference in Iraqi Kurdistan's capital, Irbil.
"It is a path focused on sustained process of negotiation, dialogue, and making sure we have a very serious effort through negotiation to resolve many of the outstanding issues confronting the region and the central government in Baghdad," McGurk added.
The referendum is scheduled for September 25, when more than 5 million Kurds in northern Iraq will determine if they want to secede from Iraq.
The Iraqi government has rejected the referendum as unconstitutional, and the Iraqi parliament has authorized Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to "take all measures" to preserve the national unity of Iraq.
The parliament also voted Thursday to fire Najm al-Din Karim, the governor of oil-rich Kirkuk, a province that is a part of disputed territories claimed by both Baghdad and Irbil as their own.
Downplaying his removal, Karim told Reuters the vote will take place.
The U.S. does not support the referendum, arguing it will destabilize Iraq and harm the ongoing fight against IS.
"This referendum is ill-timed and ill-advised," McGurk told reports in Irbil. "It is not something we can support."
He did not disclose details of the plan, but said the discussion with the Kurdish leaders was "positive and constructive."
McGurk said the alternative plan was presented to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani by representatives of the U.S., the U.N. and the U.K. during a meeting Thursday at the anti-IS coalition's command center in Duhok.
Following the meeting, the Kurdistan Region's Presidency issued a statement saying the decision to postpone the referendum could not be decided by a single individual or a political party, but needed a collective decision.
"The Kurdistan political leadership shall meet soon to discuss the alternative and the position of the Kurdistan Region will be declared as a result of that meeting," the statement said.
On Thursday afternoon, during a rally for independence in the town of Zakho, roughly 100 miles north of Irbil, Barzani said he told the delegation that the region might agree to delay the vote if a better alternative is presented.
"We have told them, before and today, if there is a better alternative, our nation will accept it," Barzani said while addressing thousands of supporters at a rally in Zakho's football stadium.
"But we will hold our referendum without an alternative and whatever happens, happens," he emphasized.
With the exception of Israel, almost all Western countries friendly to the Iraqi Kurds have publicly opposed the Kurdish referendum. They say the vote could lead to conflicts with Baghdad and neighboring Turkey and Iran, which host sizeable Kurdish populations, and would cause attention to be diverted from the fight against the IS.
IS in Iraq is on the verge of defeat, with Iraqi forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, recapturing most of the areas once controlled by the terror group. U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recently crushed IS fighters in Tal Afar in a swift 11-day battle, and they now are preparing to attack IS's last major stronghold of Hawija in Kirkuk province.
U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, during a visit to Iraq last month, encouraged the regional government and Baghdad to use dialogue to resolve their issues, and he asked all sides to "keep the focus on maintaining the momentum against [IS]."
The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, are considered one of the most consistent and capable allies of the West in the fight against IS.
U.S. officials say peshmerga's cooperation with the Iraqi army played a critical role in removing IS from Iraq's second-largest city of Mosul. They say a Kurdish bid for independence will disrupt that cooperation and may result in a war between the region and the central government, particularly on the fate of disputed territories.
The disputed territories, which also will participate in September's referendum, are large swaths of land in northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Both the central government of Iraq and the Kurds claim them as their own.