US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) meets with Iraqi Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi (R) during his visit to Baghdad on March 24. (Photo: Reuters, Jason Reed)
24 March 2013 / TODAYSZAMAN.COM WITH WIRES
US Secretary of State John Kerry was to tell Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani to abandon unilateral actions that do not receive the blessing of Baghdad, particularly with regard to an oil pipeline deal with Turkey.
Kerry arrived in Iraq on an unannounced visit to urge Iraqi leaders to stop Iranian overflights of arms and fighters heading to Syria and to overcome sectarian differences that still threaten Iraqi stability 10 years after the American-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Kerry flew into Baghdad on Sunday from Amman after accompanying President Barack Obama to Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan.
Kerry spoke to Barzani on Sunday, but there was no official statement on the content of the conversation between the two officials.
Officials traveling with Kerry said before the talks that he was due to tell Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) based in Arbil, to encourage the Kurds not go ahead with unilateral actions -- especially involving oil, such as a pipeline deal with Turkey.
They said he would stress the "importance of maintaining the unity of Iraq," say that "separate efforts undercut the unity of the country" and that "the Kurdish republic (it is a direct quote from his aides) cannot survive financially without the support of Baghdad," the official said.
Kerry's visit to Iraq is the first by a US secretary of state since Clinton went in 2009. During Obama's first term, the Iraq portfolio was largely delegated to Vice President Joe Biden.
In a signal ignoring Baghdad's efforts to keep the northern Iraqi oil trade “under control,” the autonomous KRG reiterated last month that it would press ahead with building its own oil export pipeline to Turkey.
Baghdad says it alone has the authority to control the exports of the world's fourth-largest oil reserves, while the Kurds say their right to do so is enshrined in Iraq's federal constitution, drawn up following the US-led invasion of 2003.
Crude oil from the Kurdistan region used to be shipped to world markets through a Baghdad-controlled pipeline to Turkey, but exports via that channel dried up in December -- from a peak of around 200,000 barrels per day (bpd) -- due to a row over payments with Baghdad.
The KRG is already bypassing the federal pipeline network by trucking small quantities of crude oil over the Turkish border in exchange for refined oil products.
A broad energy partnership between Iraq's north and Turkey ranging from exploration to exportation has been in the works since last year. The US earlier expressed reservations with regard to the KRG exporting its own oil due to fears that the project could lead to the fragmentation of Iraq.
Kerry's arrival came just three days after the anniversary of the US-led war that began on March 20, 2003, with an airstrike on Dora Farms in southern Baghdad in a failed attempt to kill Hussein.
The invasion and toppling of Hussein sparked years of bloodshed as Sunni and Shiite militants battled US forces and each other, leaving nearly 4,500 US soldiers and more than 100,000 Iraqis dead.
Violence has decreased sharply since the peak of Sunni-Shiite fighting that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006 and 2007. But insurgents are still able to stage high-profile attacks, and sectarian and ethnic rivalries remain threats to the country's long-term stability.
Earlier this week, an al-Qaeda in Iraq front group claimed responsibility for nearly 20 attacks that killed 65 people across the country on Tuesday and Wednesday.