Top Kurdish officials walked a rhetorical tightrope Wednesday, telling a Washington audience that they are pushing for an independent state while not closing off ties with the embattled central government in Baghdad, as Iraq's prime minister warned that al Qaeda-inspired militants posed a threat to every country in the region.
Three days after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant formally declared an Islamic state spanning the border between Syria and Iraq, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that no "neighboring country will be safe" if the group isn't stopped.
Amid increasing signs that Iraq is splitting into three autonomous sections, Mr. al-Maliki pleaded Wednesday with the nation's Sunni tribal leaders, many of whom have aligned with ISIL during recent weeks, to "return to their senses" and join his attempt to create a more inclusive government in Baghdad.
His calls offered a stark contrast to the remarks by two senior Kurdish officials who traveled to Washington, claiming that the leadership of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government remains committed to the attempts to form a new government in the Iraqi capital but is aware of realities on the ground.
Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani, stressed that Iraq already has become divided into "three states with three different systems" as a result of the violent surge by Sunni extremists over the past three weeks.
"You have got a government in Baghdad, which is not functioning, you have got an Islamic state, which is against Kurdistan and against Baghdad — and you have got Kurdistan," said Mr. Hussein, who appeared with Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government's department of foreign relations.
Speaking before an audience at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Mr. Hussein said 80 percent of the Iraqi military had collapsed in recent weeks.
He stressed that the Peshmerga militia will defend Kurdish areas from attempted incursions by Islamic state extremists.
Mr. Hussein and Mr. Bakir said Kurdish leaders plan "to follow two paths."
"One path [is] helping the government to be established in Baghdad; the other path is to establish ourself, to have an independent economic life, to strengthen our forces, Peshmerga forces, to protect our area, to protect our people ," said Mr. Hussein. "We hope that people here in Washington understand that these two paths are not contradicting each other."
Forming a government
The Iraqi parliament met Tuesday for the first time since April elections, but hopes to form a new government faded when Sunni and Kurdish political representatives walked out after less than two hours.
Mr. al-Maliki, whose Shiite political allies won the most seats in the elections, expressed hope for a quick resolution when parliament meets again next week.
However, the embattled prime minister, who has held the post since 2006, is being pressed to step aside. Many observers in the West, including officials from the Obama administration, argue that his Shiite-dominated government has stoked the Sunni extremist insurgency gripping Iraq.
Sunnis and Kurds accuse Mr. al-Maliki of attempting to monopolize power and demand that he be replaced. Although Mr. al-Maliki has shown no willingness to bow out, there has been significant political jockeying for a potential replacement.
One name that has surfaced repeatedly in recent days is Ahmad Chalabi, who led the lobbying for the 2003 U.S. military invasion of Iraq and who was an early favorite of President George W. Bush to succeed the ousted Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Chalabi fell out of favor in Washington when it was found that he fed U.S. officials faulty intelligence about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction programs, but his Iraqi National Congress party has remained a factor in Iraqi politics.
Although the party now holds just one seat in Iraq's parliament, news reports say Mr. Chalabi, a self-proclaimed secular Shiite, is a potential player whom Iraqi Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites might agree on to replace Mr. al-Maliki.
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Wednesday that the initial failure of Iraq's parliament to choose new leaders this week was "an indication that that process is not off to a good start."
Mr. Earnest said the Obama administration is holding out hope for the quick formation of a new government that can tackle the rising threat posed by the Sunni extremists. He also said Vice President Joseph R. Biden had phoned Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni who previously served as the speaker of Iraq's parliament.
Mr. Biden is "talking to people who might have some influence over the ability of Iraq's political leaders to come together and make the formation of an inclusive government a priority," Mr. Earnest said.
President Obama, meanwhile, called King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to discuss the Iraq crisis. Mr. Obama also thanked the king for Saudi Arabia's pledge of $500 million in aid to Iraqis who have been displaced by the violence.
Tens of thousands have sought refuge in the relative calm of Kurdistan in northern Iraq, according to the Kurdish envoys.
Kurdistan fought for autonomy from Baghdad when Saddam was in power, but territorial boundaries remain uncertain.
Kurdish minorities can be found in Turkey, Syria and Iran, all of which have aggressively opposed the idea of an independent Kurdish state.
"At the end of the day, even if we go down the road to independence, we want international recognition," Mr. Bakir said.
"We do understand that without the support of the neighboring countries, or at least some of them, without the support of some of the main powers in the world, the United States included, we cannot have it survive," Mr. Bakir said.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.
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