- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Secretary of State John F. Kerry extended his sweep through Iraq Tuesday, stopping in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, where a top Kurdish leader warned that a recent advance of Sunni extremists has created “a new reality and a new Iraq.”

The comments by Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani, who met with Mr. Kerry a day after the secretary of state visited leaders in Baghdad, prompted new speculation that Iraqi Kurds may be poised to push for independence from the nation’s divided Sunni and Shiite populations.

While recent weeks have seen Kurdish militias seize control of key areas of northern Iraq in response to the surge by Sunni extremists, Mr. Barzani did not specify exactly what he meant in referring to a “new Iraq,” according to The Associated Press, which reported on the Kurdish leader’s remarks.

Mr. Barzani, whose minority bloc has long functioned as kingmaker in Iraqi politics, did not directly mention Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is facing the strongest challenge to his rule since he assumed power in 2006.

But Mr. al-Maliki has made little effort beyond rhetoric to win the trust of his critics, who are led by disaffected Sunnis, Kurds and even several former Shiite allies.

Without the cooperation of the Kurdish militias, who now control the oil rich city of Kirkuk, Washington’s push for a new cross-sectarian government in Baghdad is likely to face significant hurdles during the days and weeks ahead.

The United States, along with Turkey, which borders Iraq to the north and also has a large Kurdish population, have long opposed the idea of an independent Kurdistan in the region and Mr. Kerry appeared to push that message on Mr. Barzani Tuesday.

“A united Iraq is a stronger Iraq, and our policy is to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq as a whole,” Mr. Kerry said during an interview with NBC after meeting with the Kurdish leader, according to a transcript of the interview posted on the State Department’s website.

Mr. Kerry said he is confident that, despite what Mr. Barzani may have said publicly, the Kurdish leadership will work with the other factions in Baghdad to hold Iraq together.

“At this moment, [Mr. Barzani] is going to participate in the government formation process,” Mr. Kerry said. “He is committed to trying to help yet again to find a means of having a unity government.”

The meeting between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Barzani in Irbil came a day after Mr. Kerry made a surprise visit to Baghdad to push a message of inclusion on leaders of Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions to confront what he called an “existential threat” to the country.

Mr. Kerry called on the bitterly divided factions to honor commitments to seat a new Iraqi parliament next week before a burgeoning Sunni insurgency — which has become aligned with al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during recent weeks — crushes any hope for a lasting peace in Iraq.

“This is a critical moment for Iraq’s future,” Mr. Kerry said at a press conference on Monday evening in Baghdad. “It is a moment of decision for Iraq’s leaders, and it’s a moment of great urgency.”

Mr. al-Maliki has been focused on the security situation, spending hours each day in the main military command center, rather than politics, officials close to his inner circle say, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release such details.

Despite the attention, Iraq’s mainly Shiite security forces have failed to wage any successful counteroffensives against the insurgents.

A weeklong fight for control of Iraq’s largest oil refinery continued Tuesday with helicopter gunships attacking what appeared to be formations of Sunni militants preparing for another assault on the facility in Beiji, a top military official said.

Chief military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi has denied reports that the facility has fallen to the rebels.

Government air forces also reportedly bombed the town of Qaim near the Syrian border on Tuesday, days after it was seized by Islamic extremists in Anbar province, west of Baghdad. Provincial government spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi said 17 civilians were killed.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is moving its highly trained force into Iraq after the country’s leaders agreed to a diplomatic agreement that entitles U.S. troops to the same immunities and assurances provided to State Department personnel.

The first wave of troops consists of about 90 military advisers, according to Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby. They are expected to arrive in Baghdad and set up a Joint Operations Center with Iraq Security Forces to track the movements of ISIL, he said during a press briefing at the Pentagon.

In addition, 40 troops that had been assigned to the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq will form two initial assessment teams that will contribute to the Obama administration’s effort to obtain more intelligence data on ISIL’s whereabouts and assess how to introduce follow-on advisers, Adm. Kirby said.

The troops are expected to relay their findings to senior military leaders within the next two or three weeks. They will join about 270 security personnel who are already on the ground in Iraq, Adm. Kirby said.

“A measured, deliberate approach to help us and them get better eyes on the situation,” he said.

To date, there are 50 Fleet Antiterrorism Security Forces personnel, 100 airfield management, security and logistics experts, plus 120 people with a mobile medical team on the ground in Iraq, Adm. Kirby said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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