Kerry urges Kurds to save Iraq from collapse
US Secretary of State John Kerry urged leaders of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region today to stand with Baghdad in the face of a Sunni insurgent onslaught that threatens to dismember the country.
Security forces fought Sunni armed factions for control of the country's biggest oil refinery today and militants launched an attack on one of its largest air bases less than 100 km (60 miles) from the capital.
More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in less than three weeks, the United Nations said today, calling the figure "very much a minimum".
The figure includes unarmed government troops machine-gunned in mass graves by insurgents, as well as several reported incidents of prisoners killed in their cells by retreating government forces.
Kerry flew to the Kurdish region on a trip through the Middle East to rescue Iraq following a lightning advance by the Sunni fighters led by jihadis of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
US officials believe that persuading the Kurds to stick with the political process in Baghdad is vital to keep Iraq from splitting apart. "If they decide to withdraw from the Baghdad political process, it will accelerate a lot of the negative trends," said a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity.
Kurdish leaders have made clear that the settlement keeping Iraq together as a state is now in jeopardy.
"We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq," Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said at the start of his meeting with Kerry. Earlier, he blamed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's "wrong policies" for the violence and called for him to quit, saying it was "very difficult" to imagine Iraq staying together.
Kerry told Barzani that Iraq needed to stay united, a State Department official said, referring to the Kurdish leader's comments about wanting an independent state.
The official summarised Kerry's message as: "Whatever your aspirations are for your future, your interests now in the near-term are for a stable, sovereign and unified Iraq."
The 5 million Kurds, who have ruled themselves within Iraq in relative peace since the 1990s, have seized on this month's chaos to expand their own territory, taking control of rich oil deposits.
Some senior Kurdish officials suggest in private they are no longer committed to Iraq and are biding their time for an opportunity to seek independence. In an interview with CNN, Barzani repeated a threat to hold a referendum on independence, saying it was time for Kurds to decide their own fate.