Kerry in north Iraq as crisis rages

WASHINGTON - The US secretary of state has arrived in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil to hold talks with Kurdish leaders as Sunni rebels continue their offensive.

John Kerry's trip comes a day after he visited Baghdad and pledged US support for Iraqi security forces.

Mr Kerry said Iraq faced a moment of great urgency as its very existence was under threat.

The Sunni rebels say they have fully captured the country's main oil refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad.

Mr Kerry's meetings with Kurdish leaders come as Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani strongly suggested that his region would seek formal independence from the rest of Iraq.

In a CNN interview, he said: "Iraq is obviously falling apart... The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold."

Speaking on Monday, Mr Kerry said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and other leaders had committed themselves to the "essential " step of forming an inclusive unity government by the end of the month.

Insurgents, spearheaded by Islamists fighting under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), have overrun a swathe of territory in the north and west including the second-biggest city, Mosul.

They are bearing down on a vital dam near Haditha and have captured all border crossings to Syria and Jordan.

The Baiji refinery, in Salahuddin province, had been under siege for 10 days, with militant attacks repulsed several times. The complex supplies a third of Iraq's refined fuel and the battle has already led to petrol rationing.

A rebel spokesman said it would now be handed over to local tribes to administer, and that the advance towards Baghdad would continue.

A local journalist told the BBC that Iraqi government 160 soldiers who had been defending the refinery had agreed to lay their weapons and leave after negotiations mediated by local tribal leaders.

However, an Iraqi military spokesman insisted that all rebel attempts to take control of the refinery had been foiled.

The BBC's Jim Muir in Irbil, northern Iraq, says the capture of the refinery is essential if the rebels are to keep control of the areas they have conquered and to supply Mosul with energy.

He adds that there is growing concern in the Kurdish region about the rebel advance, not least because it now effectively shares a border with Isis.

The US secretary of state vowed "intense and sustained support" for Iraq after meeting key politicians in the capital.

Speaking at the US embassy in Baghdad, Mr Kerry said US support would "allow Iraqi security forces to confront [Isis] more effectively and in a way that respects Iraq's sovereignty".

"The support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together it will be effective," he said.

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