Iraq has called the vote illegal and has vowed to ignore the results. The vote has also provoked the Kurdish region’s two powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran.
All three countries have been conducting military exercises near the border of Iraqi Kurdistan this week.
Iraqi troops, including Shiite Muslim militias incorporated into Iraq’s armed forces, are already in the Kirkuk area. While the city is controlled by Kurdish forces, Iraqi troops are fighting the Islamic State as part of an American-led coalition about 40 miles southwest of the city.
Kurdish troops known as pesh merga seized Kirkuk in 2014, when the Iraqi Army fled an assault by militants there.
The inclusion of Kirkuk and other disputed areas in the referendum enraged the Iraqi government, which interpreted the move as a land grab. Baghdad has accused the Kurds of illegally selling Iraqi oil from the Kirkuk oil fields through a pipeline that runs into Turkey.
The Kurdish independence challenge is the latest crisis to rock Iraq in recent years. The country was controlled by Saddam Hussein’s regime until 2003, when the American invasion helped set off a brutal civil war and years of wrenching upheaval.
Just three years ago, Iraq lost a third of its territory to Islamic State militants. Now that the Islamic State is finally being driven out, Iraq is faced with losing a third of its territory and access to areas with oil and natural gas if Kurdistan breaks away.
Beyond the threats of military action, Iraqi authorities have struggled to come up with any meaningful punishment for the Kurds for carrying out the referendum. But with its…