Iraq crisis: Kerry in Irbil to meet with Kurdish leader as Baiji oil refinery 'falls' to militants

The US Secretary of State visited several top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Monday, including Prime Minister Nouri Maliki

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The Independent Online

John Kerry is spending a second day in Iraq to meet with the Kurdish region's president as part of a diplomatic drive pushing towards a more inclusive government in the crisis-hit country.

He arrived in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's northern, autonomous Kurdish region, as Sunni rebels claimed to have completely overtaken the country's main oil refinery at Baiji, north of the capital, which has been under siege for ten days.

Iraqi forces have managed to push back the offensive on the refinery on several occasions, which supplies a third of the country’s refined fuel.

At one point militants were flying the black flag of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) on one helicopter, while the government deployed helicopter gunships.

Mr Kerry met several top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Monday, including Mr Maliki. He said all the leaders agreed to start the process of seating a new government by 1 July, which will advance a constitutionally-required timetable for distributing power among Iraq's political blocs, which are divided by sect and ethnicity.

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Mr Barzani's support is important because Kurds represent about 20 per cent of Iraq's population and usually vote as a unified bloc. That has made Kurds influential in Iraq's national political process.

Tensions have run deep for years between Mr Barzani and Mr Maliki, and recently surged again when the Kurdish regional government began exporting oil through Turkey without giving Baghdad a required share of the profits. The Kurdish region is home to several vast oil fields, which have reaped security and economic stability unmatched across the rest of the Iraq.

Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.

US special forces began arriving in Baghdad this week to train and advise Iraqi counter-terror soldiers, under orders from President Barack Obama, who is reluctantly sending American military might back to the war zone it left in 2011 after more than eight years of fighting.

Mr Maliki has for months requested US military help to quell Isis, and the Obama administration has said it must respond to the insurgent threat before it spreads beyond Iraq's borders and puts the West at risk of attack.

Yesterday, Mr Kerry said the US is prepared to strike the militants even if Baghdad delays political reforms.

Additional reporting by agencies