ERBIL, Iraq -- Secretary of State John Kerry arrived here in the country’s autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday morning, returning to Iraq for the second day in a row as he attempts to spur the creation of a multi-sectarian government that can respond to the Sunni militants capturing large swaths of the country.
After landing on a C-17 military aircraft into a city filled with high-rise buildings under construction, Kerry met for about an hour with senior Kurdish officials, including President Massoud Barzani, to discuss the challenges around forming a central government.
The trip to Erbil -- in a northern mountainous region that is the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government -- comes a day after Kerry held a series of meetings in Baghdad with Sunni and Shiite leaders. 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.
But deep sectarian divisions remain, and Kerry’s efforts could become complicated by the strengthened position of the Kurds. Right now they remain in an autonomous 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 Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-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, dressed in olive fatigue-style dress and a turban, told Kerry his visit comes at a “very important time.”
“With these changes we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq,” Barzani said, a reference to the strengthening position of the Kurds.
Even as some of the Iraqi military abandon their posts over the past two weeks, the peshmerga, the Krudish paramilitary forces, have gained ground. They recently helped solidify Kirkuk following an offensive from the Sunni militants – known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS – that have been gaining ground in other parts of Iraq.
“As you are aware there are a number of ... important (developments) have taken place in the region as you have seen in the last few days,” Barzani told Kerry.
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. One of Kerry’s aims is to convince the Kurds to remain active in creating a central government, according to a senior state department official.
“If they decide to withdraw from the Baghdad political process, it will accelerate a lot of the negative trends,” said the 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.
“Some facts on the ground can be created that might not be reversed,” the official said. “I mean, they’re in a very different situation and – but they – I think there’s a debate going on in the Kurdish region with some people saying, ‘Hey, this is actually pretty good, look what’s happening here,’ and others saying, ‘So we should just kind of build a moat and kind of do our own thing.’”