Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, viewing the minority ethnic group — whose indigenous population is split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran — as a buffer against shared adversaries.
President Donald Trump’s abrupt order to withdraw US troops there and abandon Kurdish forces, who have been stalwart US allies against the Islamic State, set off clanging alarm bells among officials in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The question of who could provide a long-term deterrent to Iranian and Russian interests in the area — and help ensure that the Islamic State does not rebound in Syria — is suddenly very much in play again.
More than 700 candidates are vying for 111 seats in the elections, in which nearly 3.5 million Kurds were eligible to vote. It's unclear how much change the elections could bring or whether the vote would only cement Iraqi Kurdish divisions further.
Kirkuk, a city of more than a million people with a large Kurdish community, lies just outside KRG territory, but Peshmerga forces were stationed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught.
Millions are expected to vote across the three provinces that make up the Kurdish autonomous region, as well as residents in disputed territories- areas claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Asked whether his forces would move to prevent such a crisis, said Mohammed Mahdi al-Bayati, a senior leader in the Badr Organization made only veiled reference to looming violence: "There will be conflict for sure within 24 hours of the referendum."