IRBIL, Iraq: The top Kurdish leader in Iraq warned visiting Secretary of State John Kerry Tuesday that a rapid Sunni insurgent advance has already created “a new reality and a new Iraq,” signaling major difficulties for U.S. efforts to promote unity among the country’s divided factions.
The U.N., meanwhile, said more than 1,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed this month, the highest death toll since the U.S. military withdrew in December 2011.
Massoud Barzani, whose powerful minority bloc has acted 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.
Kerry traveled to Irbil, the capital of the self-rule Kurdish region, a day after meeting with Maliki and other Iraqi officials in Baghdad, where he pushed them to adopt new policies that give more authority to minority Sunnis and Kurds.
Kerry said after the Baghdad meetings that all leaders agreed to start seating a new parliament by July 1, to advance a constitutionally required timetable for naming a president, prime minister and a new Cabinet. Maliki’s bloc won the most seats in April’s parliamentary elections but must assemble a majority coalition to secure a third term for the Shiite leader.
Barzani’s support will be crucial because Kurds represent about 20 percent of Iraq’s population and usually vote as a unified bloc.
He told Kerry that Kurds are seeking “a solution for the crisis that we have witnessed.” But, he said, “we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.”
Barzani did not elaborate, but was apparently referring to the Kurds now controlling Kirkuk and other areas in northern Iraq that they have long sought to incorporate into their region.
Kerry said at the start of the hour-long meeting that the Kurdish security forces have played a “critical” role in helping restrain the insurgents, a mix of jihadists, tribal groups and ex-Baathists.
Two senior State Department officials who attended the meeting said Kerry pre-emptively brought up the Kurds’ long-held dream of “self-determination” and told Barzani that Iraq would remain stronger if it was united. They spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for releasing the details of the private meeting.On the ground, a weeklong fight for control of the country’s largest oil refinery continued with helicopter gunships attacking what appeared to be formations of Sunni militants preparing for another assault on the Baiji facility.
Government aircraft also reportedly bombed the town of Qaim near the Syrian border, days after it was seized by the Al-Qaeda splinter group ISIS.
Provincial government spokesman Dhari al-Rishawi said 17 civilians were killed.
The U.N. findings were the first concrete sign of the toll the chaos is taking on civilians and Iraqi security forces.
Its team reported at least 1,075 people killed, including 757 civilians in northern and central Iraq from June 5 through Sunday.
U.N. human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville cautioned however that the figure “should be viewed very much as a minimum,” and said it included “summary executions” and extrajudicial killings of civilians, police and soldiers who had signaled that they were no longer combatants.
In Washington, the Pentagon said nearly half of the 300 advisers and special operations forces expected to go to Iraq are now in Baghdad, and have begun to assess Iraqi forces and the fight against Sunni militants. Another four teams of special forces will arrive in days, bringing the total to almost 200.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said the U.S. is conducting up to 35 surveillance missions over Iraq to provide intelligence on the situation on the ground as government troops battle the aggressive and fast-moving insurgency.