U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry held crisis talks with leaders of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday, urging them to stand with Baghdad in the face of a Sunni insurgent onslaught that threatens to dismember the country.
The same day, Iraqi security forces fought Sunni armed factions for control of the country's biggest oil refinery 120 miles north of Baghdad. The facility has been under threat for nearly two weeks since militants overran northern cities.
Kerry flew to the Kurdish region following a day in Baghdad on an emergency trip through the Middle East to rescue Iraq after a lightning advance led by an Al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). U.S. officials believe that persuading the Kurds to stick with the political process in Baghdad is vital to keeping 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.
On Tuesday, U.N. human rights monitors said at least 1,075 people – most of them civilians – have been killed in Iraq during June. Spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva that the figure “should be viewed very much as a minimum” and includes some verified summary executions and extra-judicial killings of civilians, police, and soldiers who had stopped fighting.
He said at least another 318 people were killed and 590 injured during the same time in Baghdad and areas in southern Iraq, many of them from at least six separate vehicle-borne bombs.
In light of the increasing sectarian violence, which many attribute to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s anti-Sunni policies, 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," Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said at the start of his meeting with Kerry. Earlier, he blamed Maliki's "wrong policies" for the violence and called for him to quit, saying it was "very difficult" to imagine Iraq staying together.
The area’s 5 million Kurds, who have ruled themselves within Iraq in relative peace since the U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, 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 Mosul, the north's biggest city, Kurdish troops took full control of Kirkuk, a city that they consider their historic capital and that 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 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 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.
Washington has placed its hopes in forming a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad that would undermine the insurgency. Kerry aims to convince Kurdish leaders to sign on.
In Baghdad on Monday, Kerry said Maliki assured him the new parliament, elected two months ago, would set a July 1 deadline to start forming a new government. Baghdad is racing against time as the insurgents consolidate their grip on Sunni provinces.
The Baiji refinery, a strategic industrial complex in northern Iraq, remained a frontline early on Tuesday. Insurgents 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.
The plant has been fought over since last Wednesday, with sudden reversals for both sides and so far no clear winner. The past three days saw Baghdad's forces abandon the entire western frontier with Jordan and Syria, leaving Sunni fighters in control of some of the most important trade routes in the Middle East.
For the insurgents, capturing the frontier is a dramatic step toward the goal of erasing the modern border altogether and building a caliphate across swathes of Iraq and Syria.
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered to send up to 300 American advisers to Iraq, but held off granting a request by Maliki's Shia Muslim-led government for air strikes.
The insurgency has been fueled by a sense of persecution among many of Iraq's Sunnis, including armed tribes who once fought Al-Qaeda but are now battling alongside the ISIL-led revolt against Maliki's Shia-led government.
His main foreign sponsors, Washington and Tehran, have both called for a swift agreement on an inclusive government, suggesting they may be ready to abandon the combative 64-year-old Shia Islamist after eight years in power. Some members of Maliki’s State of Law coalition have also indicated they could replace him for a less-polarizing figure.
Maliki has put himself at odds with the Kurds, who accuse him of reneging on promises made in exchange for their backing to stay in power after the last election in 2010. Relations are now characterized by deep mistrust, but the State Department official said Washington hopes the Kurds can be wooed back.
"If we are to have a chance … to use this process of forming a new government to reset the political foundation here, the Kurds have to be a critical part of that process, and we think they will be," the senior State Department official said.
Over the past year, the Kurds have signed oil deals with Turkey and late last year completed their own export pipeline, despite opposition from both Baghdad and Washington.
Al Jazeera and wire services