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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the U.S. embassy in the International Zone in Baghdad June 23, 2014. (POOL/REUTERS)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a news conference at the U.S. embassy in the International Zone in Baghdad June 23, 2014. (POOL/REUTERS)

Kurds eye independence as Kerry urges Iraq unity in face of advancing militants Add to ...

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged leaders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday 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 on Tuesday and militants launched an attack on one of its largest air bases less than 100 kilometres from the capital.

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More than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in less than three weeks, the United Nations said on Tuesday, 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.

Mr. Kerry flew to the Kurdish region on a trip through the Middle East bolster support for Iraq following a lightning advance by the Sunni fighters led by jihadis of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

(What is ISIL and what do they want in Iraq? Read The Globe's easy explanation)

U.S. 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,” Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani said at the start of his meeting with Mr. Kerry.

Earlier, he blamed Iraqi 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.

Mr. Kerry told Mr. 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 summarized Mr. 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 five 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.

Two days after the Sunni fighters launched their uprising by seizing the north’s biggest city Mosul, Kurdish troops took full control of Kirkuk, a city they consider their historic capital and which was abandoned by the fleeing Iraqi army.

The Kurds’ capture of Kirkuk, just outside the boundary of their autonomous zone, eliminates their main incentive to remain a part of Iraq: Its oil deposits could generate more revenue than the Kurds now receive from Baghdad as part of the settlement that has kept them from declaring independence.

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, Mr. Barzani repeated a threat to hold a referendum on independence, saying it was time for Kurds to decide their own fate.

Washington has placed its hopes in forming a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad that would undermine the insurgency. Mr. Kerry aims to convince Kurdish leaders to join it.

In Baghdad on Monday, Mr. Kerry said Mr. al-Maliki assured him the new parliament, elected two months ago, would meet a July 1 deadline to start forming a new government. Mr. al-Maliki is fighting to stay in power, under criticism for the ISIL-led advance.

Baghdad is racing against time as the insurgents consolidate their grip on Sunni provinces.

The Beiji refinery, a strategic industrial complex 200 kilometres north of Baghdad, remained a front line early on Tuesday. Militants said late on Monday they had seized it, but two government officials said troop reinforcements had been flown into the compound and fended off the assault.

Four people were killed and 12 wounded when four army helicopters bombed the city of Beiji Tuesday evening, according to local tribal sheiks, medics and eyewitnesses.

U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq but held off granting a request by Mr. al-Maliki’s government for air strikes.

The Pentagon said about 40 special-operations personnel already in the country had been deployed to assess the state of Iraq’s security forces and how to help counter the insurgency.

About 90 additional troops have arrived in Iraq to begin establishing a Joint Operations Centre in Baghdad with Iraqi forces. Another 50 U.S. military personnel are expected to arrive within the next few days, the Pentagon said.

The U.S. military is also flying about 30 to 35 manned and unmanned reconnaissance flights per day over Iraq to gain better insight into the situation on the ground, the Pentagon said.

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