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John Kerry urges Kurdish leaders to back Iraqi government

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, meets with Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, in Irbil. Photograph: Reuters

John Kerry, the US secretary of state, has urged Kurdish leaders to stand with Baghdad as fighting continued for control of Iraq‘s largest oil refinery at Baiji.

Kerry flew to the Kurdish region on an emergency trip through the Middle East amid fears that Iraq faces disintegration under the onslaught by Islamist militants – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isis) – backed by disgruntled Sunni tribes.

His visit came as the UN said at least 1,075 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Iraq in June.

US officials believe that persuading the Kurds to stick with the government in Baghdad will help keep Iraq together. “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.

But Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, hardly provided a ringing endorsement for the Iraqi government.

“We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” said Barzani at the start of his meeting with Kerry. Earlier, he blamed prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “wrong policies” for the violence and called for him to quit, saying it was “very difficult” to imagine Iraq staying together.

Kurdish troops have taken control of Kirkuk, which was abandoned by the Iraqi army after Isis forces seized Mosul at the beginning of a lightning campaign. The Kurds consider Kirkuk – just outside their autonomous zone – their historic capital; its capture makes it more tempting for the Kurds to go it alone rather than sticking with an unpopular and tottering regime.

The Kurdish region is home to several vast oilfields and has maintained stability, in stark contrast to the rest of Iraq. Senior Kurdish officials have said privately that 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. Tuesday’s meeting in Irbil, the Kurdish capital, came a day after Kerry travelled to Baghdad to discuss options with Sunni and Shia leaders, including Maliki.

Kerry said after the Baghdad meetings that all the leaders agreed to start the process of forming a new government by 1 July, which will advance a constitutionally required timetable for distributing power among Iraq’s political blocs, divided by sect and ethnicity. Barzani’s support is key to solving the crisis. Kurds represent about 20% of Iraq’s population and usually vote as a unified bloc.

The Baiji refinery, a strategic industrial complex in northern Iraq, remained a frontline early on Tuesday. Militants said late on Monday they had seized it, but two government officials said troop reinforcements had been flown inside the compound and fended off the assault.

Local tribal leaders said they were negotiating with both the government and Sunni fighters to allow the tribes to run the plant if Iraqi forces withdraw. One of the government officials said Baghdad wanted the tribes to break with Isis and other Sunni armed factions, and help defend the compound. The plant has been fought over since last Wednesday, with sudden reversals for both sides and so far no clear victor.

Source:The Guardian

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