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Iraq facing 'a new reality,' Kurdish leader tells Kerry

'We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,' Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani tells Kerry

The president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region said Tuesday that “we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq” as he met with U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry in Irbil for talks on ending Iraq’s sectarian political crisis.

The remarks by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani signaled deep concern in Iraq’s oil-rich northern region about the possibility of establishing a new, multi-sectarian government in Baghdad to help quell a fast-advancing insurgency by Sunni Muslim militants and opponents of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

As vast swaths of northern and western Iraq slipped from the hands of Maliki’s Shiite-led government in recent weeks, the crisis has renewed the prospect that Iraq could be partitioned along sectarian lines. Many in the northern Kurdish region – secular, stable and friendly to the West – have called it their best chance to gain a long-awaited independent state, particularly after Kurdish peshmerga security forces took control of the oil-producing town of Kirkuk earlier this month.

Kerry, who met with Maliki and other top Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders in Baghdad a day earlier, said Kurdish support was crucial to forming a new Iraqi government that shares power with all ethnic and religious groups.

“A united Iraq is a stronger Iraq, and our policy is to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq as a whole,” Kerry told NBC News, according to a State Department transcript. “And President Barzani understands that, particularly right now. At this moment, he is going to participate in the government formation process.”

Kurdish leaders, representing about one-fifth of Iraq’s population, are deeply opposed to Maliki, whom they and other critics accuse of running a pro-Shiite dictatorship. U.S. officials also are said to be seeking a way to remove Maliki, although the two-term prime minister, whose coalition won the most seats in April parliamentary elections, said after meeting with Kerry on Monday that his bloc would retain the right to nominate the next prime minister.

Fighting raged elsewhere Tuesday as Sunni militants and government forces continued to battle for control of the country’s largest oil refinery, in the northern city of Baiji. The militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), an Al Qaeda splinter group, reportedly gained control of the refinery after Sunni tribal leaders offered several hundred Iraqi troops there safe passage if they gave up their weapons.

Iraqi military spokesman Qassim Atta denied that account, telling reporters in Baghdad that Iraqi forces remained in control of the refinery and the surrounding town of Baiji, where they had killed at least 19 militants in overnight airstrikes.

The refinery, which is responsible for one-third of Iraq’s oil output, is key to ISIS insurgents’ aims of establishing a functioning Islamist state in what is now Iraq and Syria. The insurgents over the weekend seized the main Iraqi border crossings with Syria and Jordan, effectively sealing Iraq off by land from its western neighbors.

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