US Secretary of State John Kerry is greeted in Erbil by Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG’s Departhment of Foreign Relations. Photo: DFR
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – When the US delegation that was arriving in Baghdad asked Iraqi Kurdistan’s top leaders to be there to meet with them, the Kurds reportedly refused.
In that rejection, and the reception they gave to Kerry in their own capital of Erbil on Tuesday, the Iraqi Kurds showcased their newfound confidence, strength and unity.
Knowing full well this was the last thing Washington’s top diplomat wanted to hear, the autonomous Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani brought up what his people wanted to talk about: independence.
Kerry was in Erbil to urge the Kurds to back the formation of a new, inclusive government in Baghdad, as insurgents that include the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) rack up stunning military victories against the Iraqi army and threaten to splinter Iraq.
Barzani told Kerry it could no longer be business as usual. “We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.”
And while he did not reject Kerry’s request that the Kurds be part of a new, inclusive government in Baghdad, Barzani insisted that would have to be on Erbil’s terms.
But on Wednesday, it did not appear that Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in any mood to change things.
"The call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process," he declared in a televised address.
"It is an attempt by those who are against the constitution to eliminate the young democratic process and steal the votes of the voters," he said.
As Maliki flails, Kerry’s visit to Erbil to seek Kurdish support is acknowledgement that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has a key say in what happens next in Iraq, where the first batch of US advisers have arrived.
Sources tell Rudaw that the US had asked that a KRG delegation, to include Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and former premier Barham Salih, travel to Baghdad to meet with Kerry’s visiting delegation.
The Kurds said, ‘no,’ according to the source, who did not want to be identified.
“Because of some of the internal politics of Iraq right now, it was important for me to come here, and I’m glad I did,” Kerry said in Erbil.
In his 20-minute closed-door meeting with Kerry, "President Barzani frankly said that there is a new reality in Iraq and any solution should be in light of the developments and the new reality," reported Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations.
According to a statement posted on the Kurdistan Presidency website, Barzani told Kerry that Kurds would no longer be willing to bow to Baghdad.
“We believe that Baghdad is trying to marginalize us, as was the case with the previous regime, but the people of Kurdistan have made great sacrifices for their freedom and they would never accept this subjugation," said a statement quoting the Kurdish president.
The Kurds have had a host of serious problems with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, including over oil and their share of the budget, and the two have come close to war.
In Erbil, unlike previous meetings, where the Kurdish president would speak with senior foreign officials alone, the meeting with Kerry demonstrated stronger Kurdish unity: Leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Change Movement (Gorran) also got a chance to speak with the US secretary.
"It’s important that most of the leaders of the winning parties of Kurdistan sit and convey the Kurdish views to an important personality like John Kerry," said Shorsh Haji, a senior Gorran leader.
The Kurdish president also reaffirmed that, while the Kurds are committed to fighting terrorism, they will not be dragged into a sectarian war under that pretext.
"The people of Kurdistan are against terrorism in all shapes and forms and have been the victims of terrorism themselves,” Barzani told Kerry. “But the fight against terrorism has been a pretext for sectarian rivalries, and we cannot be part of this,” he said.