Iraqi airstrikes near Baiji oil refinery kill 32 as Kerry meets Kurdish leaders in Irbil

Even as US Secretary of State John Kerry vowed `sustained and intense` support to Iraq, the ISIS Sunni militants continued their relentless advance, with the Baiji oil refinery being their latest gain.

By Supriya Jha | Last Updated: Jun 24, 2014, 18:54 PM IST

Zee Media Bureau/Supriya Jha

Baghdad: US Secretary of State John Kerry on Tuesday met the leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region and urged them not to withdraw from Iraq`s political process in wake of the continued ISIS blitz.

Kerry flew to Irbil in northern Iraq, a day after his Baghdad trip where PM Nuri al-Maliki assured him that a new inclusive government will be formed by July 1.

In Irbil, Kerry met Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, who has earlier dropped broad hints that the autonomous region is mulling to seek independence from the restive Iraq in light of the recent ISIS insurgency.

Speaking to the CNN, Barzani had said that Kurdistan people should determine their own future as "Iraq is obviously falling apart...".

"We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq," the Reuters quoted Kurdish President Massoud Barzani as saying at the start of his meeting with Kerry.

In the latest crisis sparked by the ISIS militancy, Kurds see an opportunity to expand their autonomous region and seek independence from Iraq.

Just a couple of days after the Sunni militants captured Mosul and started their advance, Kurds captured the oil-rich Kirkuk, which they consider as their historic capital.

However, the US will try its best to persuade the Kurds not to split from Iraq as it will further weaken the government formation process which is vital to the country`s future at a time when it is besieged by the militants.

Meanwhile, the ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) Sunni militants continued their relentless advance in Iraq, with the Baiji oil refinery reportedly being their latest gain.

The largest oil refinery in Iraq`s Baiji, which supplies a third of the country`s refined fuel, was said to have been captured fully by the Sunni militants, the BBC reported.

However, Iraqi military spokesperson denied the report, saying they were able to fend off the insurgents.

Iraqi air strikes killed at least 32 people today as security forces held off attacks on a strategic town and an oil refinery, officials and witnesses said.

The Baiji refinery, in Salahuddin province has been a hotspot for the battle between Iraqi forces and the ISIS militants since last 10 days.

The Iraqi airstrikes come after Kerry assured an intense and sustained US support to Iraq to counter the ISIS.

In Baghdad, Kerry said that the US was committed to Iraq but won`t play any role in choosing its new leader.

Kerry added that Iraq`s future depended on ability of Iraq leaders to come together and stand united against ISIL.

"The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks," said US Secretary of State John Kerry in Iraq.

Kerry on Monday discussed met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, and also met key Shia and Sunni leaders over the ISIS crisis.

Authorities in the United States and the Middle East have blamed the current crisis on PM Maliki`s marginalistaion of Sunni Muslims and want him to quit so that the country`s Sunnis can be assured of an inclusive government that addresses their concerns equally.

As the ISIS continue their march forward, engulfing wide swathes of Iraqi territory, including all border crossings to Syria and Jordan, the danger is looming large for Baghdad.

The capture of border crossings to Syria and Jordan is a matter of great concern as the militants could then remain in contact with their fellow militants across the border and assist them with the arms and weapons looted from Iraq. This could further widen and strengthen the network of the ISIS militants whose main aim is building an Islamic Caliphate state straddling the Middle East. 

With more towns falling in the jaws of Sunni militants, who are relentlessly pushing ahead with their lightning offensive that started last week, the crisis in Iraq may worsen to a dangerous proportion, and spread to the neighboring areas as well.