By Raed Asad Ahmed and Rekar Aziz
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Erbil Tuesday to try to urge the autonomous Kurds not to quit the political process in Baghdad, after promising “sustained and intense” support to counter a blitz by Sunni militants that threatens to splinter Iraq.
Iraq has been plunging deeper into turmoil since insurgents that include the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured its second-largest city, Mosul, a fortnight ago, starting a juggernaut that has seen the Iraqi army collapse and large cities and territories falling to the rebels.
In Baghdad on Monday, embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki promised Kerry he would form a new government by July 1, following recent elections that preceded the current crisis, as militants reportedly captured the Baiji refinery, the country’s largest.
There were still conflicting reports about whether government forces or the rebels were in control of the oil facility in the country’s north.
In Erbil, Kerry went into a meeting with Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani to urge the Kurds – who have no love lost for the Shiite Maliki and have said he must step down instead of seeking a third term -- to help in the formation of a new Iraqi government.
Kurdish support will be key to hold Iraq together.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), on the other hand, has moved its Peshmerga military into vast territories outside its official borders to secure Kurdish-inhabited areas left vacant by a wholesale retreat of the Iraqi army.
That includes the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds consider the capital of a future state.
Convincing the Kurds will be a tough sell for Kerry, because for years Erbil has had nothing but problems with Baghdad. In a CNN interview aired Monday, Barzani said “it is time now for the Kurdistan people to determine their future,” the strongest statement he has made regarding independence.
"Iraq is obviously falling apart anyway, and it's obvious that a federal or central government has lost control over everything," Barzani told CNN.
In Baghdad, Kerry said US support would work only if Iraq remains together.
"The support will be intense and sustained and if Iraq's leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective,” Kerry told reporters.
Although the Kurds have Kirkuk, whose oil revenues would surpass anything they could get from staying part of Iraq, their Peshmerga forces also have been facing attacks in areas they recently moved into.
On Monday morning, two Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) went off on the Rabia border crossing between Iraq and Syria, killing one Kurdish soldier and injuring six of his colleagues, Peshmerga officer Muzaffar Silkayi said.
Peshmerga forces took over the checkpoint after the Iraqi army deserted its positions. ISIS militants, who are fighting both in Iraq and Syria, are already in control of two Iraqi border crossings to Syria. The goal of the rebels is to establish an Islamic state that straddle Iraq and Syria.
“The situation in the rest of the Kurdistan Region is calm, but the deployment of the Peshmerga forces to new areas is a new experiment for us,” said Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hikmat. “It will take some time before we can stop these attacks against our forces,” he told Rudaw.
Later Monday, another IED targeted Kurdish forces in Rabia, killing three more Peshmerga soldiers and injuring two.
The Kurds, who appear to be emerging as the only winners from the turmoil threatening to drown Iraq, have received other threats from Shiite militias and radical leaders, who have accused them of being behind the unfolding crisis, an allegation Erbil has denied.
Abu Waris Musawi, spokesman of a militia formed during the Syrian crisis to protect sacred Shiite shrines in Iraq and Syria, sent a televised warning to Barzani over the weekend against annexing Kirkuk.
“We have rockets capable of reaching the center of Erbil city,” he said Saturday on al-Anwar TV.
“We do not listen to these threats and the Kurdistan Regional Government has its own strategy for protecting the Kurdistan Region,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry.
The Asaib Ahl al-Haq militia, the first to respond to calls by Maliki and Iraq’s highest Shiite authorities to take up arms, last week vowed to fight the Kurds as well as the Sunni extremists.
The Kurdistan Region, which has its own government, parliament, army and constitution, remains the only peaceful and economically prospering portion of Iraq.