ERBIL, Iraq — Secretary of State John F. Kerry, after a flurry of meetings with leaders of Iraq’s sectarian political factions over two days, left Iraq Tuesday with deep uncertainties over whether the country would emerge from a political crisis that is putting it on the verge of a civil war.
It probably will not be clear for several days whether his visit had an impact, setting up a test of how much influence the United States still has over a country whose leader it deposed in 2003 and one that it attempted to leave behind three years ago.
Although US officials have said publicly that they have no chosen candidates to lead the country, privately they seem to be hoping that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a divisive Shi’ite leader who has alienated Sunnis and Kurds — will be unable to garner enough support for another term. They are hopeful that enough groundwork has been laid for an alternate candidate to emerge in the coming days and offer a credible challenge to Maliki.
Kerry’s mission to encourage a coherent coalition government is complicated by Kurdish leaders, who have long sought more autonomy and are now speaking openly about leaving Iraq altogether.
“We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish region, said before meeting with Kerry Tuesday morning.
During the closed-door meeting, Kerry first raised what he called “the elephant in the room.” He urged Barzani — an adamant opponent of Maliki — not to seek Kurdish independence but to take part in the creation of a more unified, multisectarian government in Iraq.
“This moment requires statesmanship,” Kerry said, according to a State Department official who briefed reporters after the meeting. “Whatever your aspirations are for your future, your interest now in the near term are for a stable, sovereign, secure Iraq.”
Kerry came to Iraq at the request of President Obama, in search of a political solution to a country where insurgent Sunni militants have captured large swaths of territory and could pose a threat to neighboring countries. While the United States has kept open the possibility of military strikes, most of Kerry’s trip was focused on spurring the creation of a multisectarian government that can present a united front against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The trip to Erbil Tuesday — in a northern region that is the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government — followed meetings he held Monday in Baghdad with Sunni and Shi’ite leaders, including Maliki. During that visit he won assurances from Iraqi leaders that they would begin forming a new government by July 1, as required by the constitution. The Kurds inhabit a semiautonomous region that is still part of the Iraq government and represents about 20 percent of the country’s population. But they have long feuded with Maliki, and Barzani has called for his ouster. “As everybody knows this is a very critical time for Iraq and the government formation challenge is the central challenge that we face,” Kerry said at the start of his meeting with the Kurdish president inside a palace compound, with stained glass windows and heaps of flowers. Barzani, in fatigues-style dress and a turban, told Kerry his visit comes at a “very important time.”
Even as some Iraqi troops abandoned their posts over the past two weeks, the Peshmerga, the Kurdish paramilitary forces, have gained ground. They recently helped solidify Kirkuk following an offensive from the Sunni militants that have been gaining ground in other parts of Iraq.
In an interview with CNN on Monday, Barzani strongly suggested the Kurdish region could seek independence. “During the last 10 years we did everything in our ability, we made every effort, and we showed political stability in order to build a new democratic Iraq,” he said. “But unfortunately the experience has not been successful they way that it should have.”
His comments could be part of a negotiating tactic aimed at elevating the Kurdish position during the creation of a new government. But US officials have worried that the growing strength of the Kurds could change their demands, or cause them to split off from Iraq.
“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, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Whereas if they are an active participant in that process . . . they will have substantial clout and influence in Baghdad.”
But the gains that Kurdish forces have made in recent weeks, the official said, could complicate the discussions. A peaceful debate among Kurds has emerged between a minority that support full independence against those who see joining a united government against the insurgents as the wise course, the official said.
“There’s a more majority debate out there that it is in nobody’s interest to have kind of Al Qaeda on steroids on our southern border, and the only way to make sure they are not is to make sure a moderate Sunni component is able to clear these areas,” the official added. “And to do that it’s really essential that the Kurds are an effective and active part of the national political process, including with a very strong Kurdish president.”
Several hours after landing in Erbil — a city filled with high-rise buildings under construction — Kerry was back aboard his C-17 military plane, bound for Brussels for meetings with NATO officials.