Kerry's message of unity may be a tough sell to Iraq's Kurds

Secretary of State John Kerry visited the semi-autonomous region today and urged the Kurds not to give up on Baghdad. But the Kurdish president told Kerry that 'We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.'

Brendan Smialowski/AFP
Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, right, listens to US Secretary of State John Kerry during a meeting at the presidential palace in Erbil, Iraq.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry followed his visit to Baghdad Monday with an unannounced stop in Erbil, where he urged Kurdish leaders to stay united with the central government and fight the driving Sunni insurgency that threatens the country's unity.

At least 1,075 people have been killed in Iraq so far this month, most of them civilians, as the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) has taken over territory in the north, along the border with Syria, and at least one border crossing with Jordan, reports the Associated Press. The fighting has exacerbated sectarian tensions, while ISIS battles for key resources, including Iraq’s largest oil refinery in Baiji, reports Agence France-Presse.

Mr. Kerry visited Baghdad Monday to encourage Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a unity government to withstand further advances by ISIS, which has support from Iraq's disgruntled Sunnis. But Kerry's message faces a tough challenge in Kurdistan. For officials in the semi-autonomous region of 6.5 million people in northern Iraq, the recent unrest and the central government’s weakness may serve as an opportunity to pursue a “long-held goal of independence,” reports The Washington Post.

“We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” Mahsoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish government, told Kerry today.

Kurds make up about 20 percent of the Iraqi population and have access to vast oil fields and past experience with semi-autonomous rule. Kurdish forces seized control of the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk during the ISIS-led offensive earlier this month.

“Iraq is obviously falling apart,” President Barzani told CNN. “We did not cause the collapse of Iraq. It is others who did. And we cannot remain hostages for the unknown.”

US officials worry what it will mean for Iraq’s fragile state if Kurdistan seeks independence.

“If they decide to withdraw from the Baghdad political process it will accelerate a lot of the negative trends,” a senior US official told the Financial Times today.

According to The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy, the US has “repeatedly stressed the need for political reconciliation in Iraq – something that Maliki and his allies have been consistently opposed to for many years now.”

Since the US was kicked out of the country at the end of 2011, the situation has worsened. Maliki’s government has pursued politically motivated terrorism trials against senior Sunni Arab politicians who worked with the government, arrested and killed members of the Awakening who fought beside US forces, and driven Iraq in dangerously authoritarian and sectarian directions. His choices made another Sunni uprising, and the splintering of Iraqi institutions along sectarian lines, almost inevitable.

 
The Kurds aren’t the only ones securing their borders and picturing a future with greater autonomy. According to The New York Times, “As the Iraqi state, especially the military, seems to be weakening by the day, ISIS has been building the trappings of a new state, seizing assets that include armored vehicles, weapons, and money, fighting for control of Baiji, Iraq’s largest oil refinery, and now securing border outposts.”

The ISIS advance on the border posts highlights the quick and strategic gains the militants have made against the Iraqi government…. But the advance also starkly symbolized the broader aim espoused by ISIS of erasing the border drawn by the colonial powers after World War I and establishing an Islamic state that stretches from the Mediterranean through the deserts of Iraq.
 
 “Taking the border crossing with Jordan would mean to me that ISIS is messaging to Jordan and Saudi Arabia that it is a state now,” said Jessica D. Lewis, research director at the Institute for the Study of War, who has scrutinized the militant group’s advances in Iraq and Syria.
 
 “I do not think that ISIS is necessarily going to move into Jordan or Saudi Arabia imminently,” she said, “but they are willing to force Jordan and Saudi Arabia to plan forward and treat ISIS as a state actor with military means.”

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