Iraqi Kurds prepare for independence referendum that could impact fight against ISIS

jcamilobernal/iStock/Thinkstock(BAGHDAD) -- Over five million Iraqi Kurds are preparing to hold an independence referendum that could have significant consequences for the fight against ISIS. The referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25, will determine if Iraq's Kurdistan region in the north will break away from the Iraqi government.

The U.S. fears the decision could disrupt the war due to the important role Kurdish Peshmerga, fighting alongside Iraqi Security Forces, have played in recapturing Iraqi cities from ISIS. The fighting forces, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, have steadily regained territory -- most recently crushing ISIS fighters in Tal Afar in an 11-day battle.

Several top U.S. officials have voiced their concerns, including asking the head of the Kurdish Regional Government to postpone the vote to maintain focus on the ISIS fight.

On Aug. 22, during a trip to Iraq, Secretary of Defense James Mattis encouraged dialogue between Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and asked all sides to "keep the focus on maintaining the momentum against ISIS" -- a sentiment shared by the State Department and U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees the coalition.

"ISIS is the main fight that Iraqis have been fighting for years now," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said on Aug. 15, adding, "We see that as the sole focus where we need to stay -- where we need to keep the eye on the ball," she said.

"We'd prefer everyone stayed fully focused on the fight against ISIS," Col. John Thomas, CENTCOM spokesman, told ABC News on Wednesday when asked about the referendum.

Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, has had some of the strongest language against the referendum, calling its timing "potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign."

"I would just mention that is not just the United States that does not think this referendum should be held," he said on Aug. 21 during a joint press availability with Mattis in Jordan. "It’s really every member of our coalition who believes now is not the time to hold this referendum. So we’ve made our position on that really clear."

Turkey and Iran have also voiced their opposition, with Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling the vote a "grave mistake."

Despite Iraq's government rejecting the referendum in a non-binding resolution, Barzani defended it in Kirkuk on Tuesday, saying the vote is "entirely legal."

Kirkuk province, which is home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, is controlled by Kurdish forces but claimed by the Iraqi government. Barzani promised that the area, which will also participate in September's referendum, will retain its identity.

The push by Iraq's Kurds for independence dates back over a decade.

In 2005, Kurdish leaders wanted to add a clause to Iraq's constitution that would allow for a referendum. The vote that is scheduled for this September was originally supposed to take place in 2014 but was repeatedly delayed.

In that time, the Kurds have taken advantage of the opportunity to push out ISIS, gaining additional territory and bolstering their case for an independent state.

The Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups in the Middle East and have their own language and cultural traditions. There are large populations of Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.

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Woman arrested on suspicion of attempted burglary at Prince George's London school: Police

gynane/iStock/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- A 40-year-old woman has been arrested on suspicion of attempted burglary at the London school attended by Prince George, according to police.

The woman, who was not identified, was taken into custody Wednesday after trying to access Thomas’s Battersea School on Tuesday, the Metropolitan Police Service said in a statement.

George, 4, began attending the private school in Battersea, South London, last week. He was escorted to his first day of school there by his father, Prince William, and Helen Haslem, the head of Thomas’s lower school.

"We are working with the school, which is attended by His Royal Highness Prince George, to review its security arrangements after the incident," police said. "Police were alerted and officers attended immediately after the issue came to light."

The suspect remains in custody at a South London police station.

Thomas's Battersea has approximately 550 students from a variety of backgrounds — whom George will one day lead as king. The approximately $23,000-per-year school teaches a range of traditional subjects, along with ballet, art, drama, French, music and physical education.

George, whose parents are the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, is known as George Cambridge to his classmates.

The Metropolitan Police Service are part of the security force for members of the royal family.

The police said Thomas's Battersea is responsible for building its own security but pledged to continue to "work closely" with the school.

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Tourists say Marriott rescue boat left them behind because they weren’t hotel guests THOMAS, U.S. Virgin Islands) -- An evacuation effort organized by Marriott hotels is facing criticism after some American tourists said they were denied entry onto a ferry chartered to help stranded guests in the Caribbean.

The U.S. Coast Guard boat chartered by Marriott on Friday was sent to transport hotel guests from hurricane-battered St. Thomas to Puerto Rico. "These were guests who had to stay behind after the airport closed in advance of Hurricane Irma," Marriott said in a statement.

But dozens of American tourists were left stranded in St. Thomas when dock security would not let them aboard because they were not Marriott guests on the manifest.

"We had a group -- probably 35 people that there was plenty of room for -- that were not allowed access to the boat," Craig Schweiger told ABC News.

Naomi Michial Ayala, who was also stranded, posted a video on Facebook of the boat at the dock, writing that 30 people were turned away despite the ferry having 1,300 open seats.

The company defended itself in a statement that it didn't have authorization to take passengers who weren't staying at the hotel.

"There were a number of additional people gathered at the dock who were not our guests who also expressed a desire to leave St. Thomas. We very much wanted to assist these other travelers to Puerto Rico; however, the Marriott team on the ground was told they had no authorization to board additional passengers who were not on the manifest. This was enforced by dock security," the company said.

Dock security did not respond to ABC News' request for comment.

Additional private companies, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Puerto Rico National Guard are continuing rescue efforts to airlift tourists out of islands struck by Irma, and those people left behind are believed to now be out of St. Thomas.

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Trump on new North Korea sanctions: 'Very small step, not a big deal' -- The State Department on Tuesday praised new sanctions on North Korea passed by the United Nations Security Council, hours after President Donald Trump dismissed them.

"We had a vote yesterday on sanctions," the president said Tuesday. "We think it's just another very small step. Not a big deal."

The UNSC unanimously approved the new sanctions that ban 90 percent of North Korea's publicly-reported exports and cap the amount of oil the country is able to import.

Trump added the sanctions were "nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen."
State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters she was "not going to go against the president," but she said she thought the sanctions were "significant" and "the strongest set of sanctions" passed by the UNSC on North Korea.

“The world is happy and the world is pleased with what took place yesterday," she said.

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'Firm' response assured by Italy after American women allege rape by policemen in Florence

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The probe into the alleged rape of two American women by members of Italy’s paramilitary police corps continued this week, as the policemen were questioned, DNA testing in the case advanced, and a top Italian official promised a “firm” response.

The American women, who were studying in Florence, say that two policeman in Italy’s Carabinieri force raped them after driving them home in the city early Thursday morning.

Prosecutors said on Monday they were awaiting test results for DNA samples taken from the landing and the elevator in the apartment building where the women lived, where the assaults are alleged to have taken place.

Italian media is reporting that one policeman was questioned by investigators in recent days, and he reportedly told prosecutors he had sex with one of the women. His lawyer told reporters that her client maintained the sex was consensual, and the woman was not drunk.

Italian news agency Ansa reported that the second policeman was questioned for about two hours on Tuesday by prosecutors in Florence. The policeman spoke to the prosecutor voluntarily, before being summoned, according to the report. The prosecutor’s office would not confirm the details of this report to ABC News.

The Carabinieri said the two policemen were suspended last week pending the outcome of the probe. Neither has been officially identified by authorities, nor have they been charged.

"It is an extremely serious case, just thinking of these girls and thinking that whoever did this was wearing a uniform that usually signifies security and closeness to citizens,” Italy’s Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti said Tuesday. “We will follow the work of the prosecutors but we will be firm."

The two women were renting an apartment in the upscale center of Florence. The uniformed officers were reportedly called to a Florence nightclub called Flo, near the city’s Piazza Michelangelo, to calm a brawl in the disco. This is where they met the women before driving them home and allegedly assaulting them.

Gabriele Zanodini, a lawyer for one of the women, told ABC News on Tuesday that, under Italian law, what happened clearly would prompt a rape investigation. Under Italian law, prosecutors have six months -- which can be extended -- to carry out their preliminary investigation before deciding on charges. Details of the investigation cannot legally be made public until charges are made and a trial is conducted.

Italian media is reporting that the women were 19 and 21 years old. ABC News does not typically report the name of victims of potential sexual assault, and under Italian law, the names may not be made public.

Zanodini said his client’s family “should arrive soon” in Italy, and that the family of the other woman had already arrived. ABC News was not able to reach the other woman’s lawyer.

Italian Police Chief Franco Gabrielli said Monday that “individual cases should be judged extremely firmly, with extreme severity.”

“Fortunately we have strong and solid institutions that will surely experience these situations with great pain and unhappiness,” Gabrielli said, “but this will not remotely affect the history of the Carabinieri paramilitary police corps that has, for more than 200 years, guaranteed legality, and the respect for the rules, and laws of our country.”

A former prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, called the case “a blood-curdling use of the uniform.” Renzi, who is also a former mayor of Florence, said, “What happened in Florence is of an unprecedented gravity.”

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As St. Thomas slowly regains services after Irma, residents decide whether to rebuild

Courtesy Jeff Neezel(NEW YORK) -- The island of St. Thomas was among the group of islands worst hit by Hurricane Irma and now residents are faced with recovering from the devastation, or in some cases, deciding that it might not in their best interest to rebuild.

Some, like Pastor Jeff Neezel and members of his congregation, are working to salvage the many ravaged homes and try to rebuild.

Others, like Kacie Marano, decided that it was safest to leave the island after the storm hit and are now weighing whether to return home.

All agree that the devastation that Hurricane Irma left in its wake was worse than they could have imagined.

"There's not a leaf left on a tree," Neezel told ABC News. "It looks like a deserted planet."

Marano has had a long relationship with the U.S. Virgin Islands, but now she is grappling with the question of whether to ever return. She went to high school in neighboring St. Croix and has lived on St. Thomas for the last three years working for a contracting firm affiliated with USAID on agriculture projects for the U.S. government.

On Tuesday before the storm hit, she said she and her colleagues "cleaned out our desks and put garbage bags on everything. We knew it was going to be bad."

From there, she went to her apartment, which is the top, wooden floor of a building.

"I'm a single female living in a house that is not my own and I'm lucky that I know what a Phillips screwdriver is," she said about her efforts to board up her house.

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Breaking down Hurricane Irma's damage

She packed up a waterproof backpack with important documents, three days-worth of workout clothes, underwear and three meaningful photos of her deceased father and grandmother.

She then left to stay with friends who have a secure lower alcove in their house, which they thought would be a safe place to ride out the storm.

When she called her neighbor after the storm hit a day later, she said that he told her half of her roof had blown away.

"Only half of it came off. It was over my bedroom, so I'm assuming that pretty much everything is gone," she said. "But I don't know that for sure."

"I think my washer and dryer is in their shower," she said.

Julius Jackson, the 30-year-old head chef and manager of a cafe-turned-soup kitchen, called My Brother's Workshop, was shocked by the devastation.

"We could see the coconut tree right outside the window and it was almost touching the ground," he said about watching the storm.

"There were houses that weren't even standing anymore," Jackson continued. "You could see just the debris and the stairs."

Downed trees have made a number of roads on the island impassable. Marano said the car at her friend's house was hit by a fallen tree, making it impossible for her to return home. She said she bounced between friends' houses for a few days, but then "there were rumors about safety issues and at that point I had to get out as soon as possible."

She got in touch with a friend who was bringing supplies from Puerto Rico and rode back with him. Eventually, she took a JetBlue flight to New York. She is now staying with her mother in New Jersey and doesn't know what she's going to do.

"There's not much to go back for in the immediate future," she said.

For those still on the island, daily life is gradually improving. Neezel spoke to ABC News on Monday and said that My Brother's Workshop, which he was helping to organize, didn't know if they would have enough fuel to power the generators for more than one day. By Tuesday morning, the power was back on at the cafe.

"It was a huge, huge victory," he told ABC News on Tuesday.

They started running power lines out to the street so people could charge their phones. The cafe, which is able to feed about 500 people per day, plans to cook and serve a full lunch on Tuesday.

Still, the situation is far from perfect.

Security on the island has been an issue and Neezel said the cafe has experienced repeated break-ins, including as recently as last night, where they store food.

"There's not much stuff left there [so] they couldnt have gotten much," Neezel said about the would-be robbers.

At his house, he was fortunate. The roof stayed in place and the structure only suffered minor water damage. But that isn't the case for many.

"I have 15 families [in the congregation] that have lost their homes," Neezel said, "and the entire population of the island is half homeless now because of roofs blown off."

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UN Security Council unanimously approves new sanctions on North Korea

Purestock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- The United Nations Security Council on Monday unanimously approved a new round of sanctions on North Korea, one week after the country conducted its sixth and strongest nuclear test to date.

The new sanctions ban 90 percent of North Korea's publicly-reported exports and cap the amount of oil the country is able to import, according to a U.S. official familiar with the negotiations.

“We are very pleased with this package," the official said of the resolution, even though it required U.S. concessions to China and Russia to win approval. "This is the strongest set of sanctions that the Security Council has imposed. It represents yet another major step.”

The official defended the U.S. mission from critics who say the sanctions were watered down, arguing an early draft from the U.S. was given to the press to place pressure on any who might seek to soften the sanctions. The final resolution was the result of “tactical calls” to “get strong results” and get everyone on the Security Council on board, the official added.

Following the vote, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley portrayed North Korea as increasingly isolated.

"It is dark and it's getting darker," Haley said. "The entire international community is united against its dangerous, illegal actions."

Haley further addressed the North Korean regime directly, saying it is not too late to change course.

"We don't take pleasure in further strengthening sanctions today," said Haley. "We are not looking for war. The North Korean regime has not passed the point of no return … If it proves it can live in peace, the world will live in peace with it."

"The choice is theirs," she added.

Among the provisions that were in a draft proposal, but not the final resolution were a total oil embargo and a freeze on the assets of both North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the national airline.

Instead, the resolution caps refined oil imports at 2 million barrels and crude oil imports at their current levels. It also bans North Korean exports of textiles, a $726 million industry, and phases out North Korea’s overseas labor program, which sends 93,000 North Koreans abroad to work in near slave conditions and send their pay back to the regime.

Haley addressed the question of how to enforce the sanctions, saying it would present a challenge but expressing optimism given Chinese cooperation on the resolution.

“We all know these steps only work if all nations implement them completely and aggressively,” said Haley, adding the resolution “would not have happened without the strong relationship between President Trump and President Xi, and we greatly appreciate both teams.”

Prior to the approval, Trump and the U.S. treasury secretary threatened to impose unilateral sanctions against any country that trades with North Korea if the Security Council was unable to come to an agreement.

Though Russia voted in favor of the resolution on Monday, President Vladimir Putin earlier downplayed the effectiveness of sanctions given North Korea's unrelenting nuclear ambitions.

“In North Korea they will eat grass but still not give up this [nuclear and ballistic missile] program," said Putin.

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Satellite images show destruction left by Hurricane Irma in Caribbean

DigitalGlobe via Google News Lab(NEW YORK) -- A series of satellite images taken before and after Hurricane Irma carved a path through the Caribbean detail the extent of widespread damage left by the storm.

At least 37 people died in the Caribbean, and at least another seven in Florida, as a result of the hurricane which had wind speeds as strong as 160 miles per hour when it made landfall in Cuba.

Click here for a look at the aftermath of Hurricane Irma at three locations in the Caribbean.

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Royal Caribbean dispatches cruise ships to help with hurricane relief

Carl Juste/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images(NEW YORK) -- Royal Caribbean is sending cruise ships to the Caribbean to help with Hurricane Irma relief efforts and to transport those impacted by the devastating storm to safety, the cruise line announced Sunday.

Ships from Royal Caribbean's fleet are being mobilized and filled with supplies to "help people in need," according to a press release.

On Sunday, the Adventure of the Seas will be making a humanitarian stop in St. Martin, while the Majesty of the Seas will make stops in both St. Thomas and St. Martin. That ship will then assist in transporting evacuees from the island.

Two additional ships -- the Empress of the Seas and the Enchantment of the Seas -- are ready to assist Florida cities such as Key West and Tampa once the hurricane passes through and its impact is known, the press release said.

About 1,500 Americans have been evacuated from St. Martin.

Much of the popular tourist island of St. Martin was destroyed by Irma, which was a Category 5 storm when it hit. St. Martin's famous Princess Juliana International Airport was badly damaged by the storm, making supplies only deliverable via helicopter.

The damage on St. Martin is so bad that some large resort companies, including Sonesta, have canceled reservations for the rest of 2017.

French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said the island's "four most solid buildings" had been destroyed and that more rustic structures were probably "completely or partially destroyed."

Ahead of the storm, Royal Caribbean canceled three of its cruises in the Caribbean.

The cruise line's chief meteorologist, James Van Fleet, is closely tracking Irma's progress to determine its potential impact to its current and upcoming sailings, the press release read.

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Before-and-after photos from space capture Irma's impact on Turks and Caicos

iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Remarkable before-and-after photos show Hurricane Irma's impact on Turks and Caicos, which was devastated by the monster storm earlier this week.

The photos, posted by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik on his official Twitter account, show how the shoreline of the island shifted in the aftermath of the hurricane, which left at least 27 people dead in the Caribbean.

"What a difference a week makes," Bresnik wrote.

The deadly hurricane is currently churning up the west coast of Florida, pelting the Sunshine State with heavy rainfall and powerful winds. At least three people have died in Florida and millions are without power.

Randy Bresnik/NASA

Randy Bresnik/NASA

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