The U.S. military was still operating out of the Irbil airport in Kurdistan on Thursday and was so far has been unaffected by the political strife sweeping Iraq after the region voted for independence this week, said Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S. coalition there. But he did say the upheaval in the region is distracting from the ISIS fight.
"I don't want to predict anything in the future but right now current operations continue and we continue to go after ISIS," Dillon said.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called on Kurdistan to turn over control of all its airports to the government in Baghdad by Friday after it held a referendum on Monday and 92 percent of its 3 million residents voted to form an independent state.
The quickly escalating political conflict is creating what could be a major problem for the U.S. military, which depends on both the Iraqi security forces and the Kurdish peshmerga to fight the Islamic State.
"I don't talk about the ‘what ifs,' but we have planners who try to predict and plan for potentials," Dillon told Pentagon reporters during an update from Iraq. "That's where some of our efforts and our brain power has gone after the referendum has kicked off."
Dillon said the U.S. is in close contact with the Kurdish regional government, the Iraqi government and security forces about the evolving situation at the international airport at Irbil.
Despite continued operations, he said the growing conflict over the referendum has sapped energy from the war effort against the Islamic State.
"What I will say is that the focus, which used to be like a laser beam on ISIS, is now not a 100 percent there," he said. "There has been an effect on overall mission to defeat ISIS in Iraq as a result of the referendum."