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Kurdish leader: ‘We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq’

June 24, 2014 at 6:09 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of State John Kerry pushed ahead again today to help save Iraq from collapse, returning to the country and pleading with a major political figure to help keep the state intact.

It was Kerry’s first trip to the Kurdish regions of Iraq as secretary of state.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: Good to see you again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: An emergency visit in the face of the military onslaught by ISIL, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Kerry met with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, urging him to support efforts in Baghdad to form a new government.

JOHN KERRY: In recent days, the security cooperation between the forces here in the Kurdish area has been really critical in helping to draw a line with respect to ISIL and also to provide some support to the Iraqi security forces.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Barzani made it clear the century-old idea of a single unified state of Iraq might be a thing of the past.

PRESIDENT MASSOUD BARZANI, Kurdistan Regional Government (through interpreter): Your visit comes at a very important time, and this is important for us to exchange views about the current developments that the entire region is facing, especially Iraq. This needs the support of all concerned in order to find a proper solution for the crisis that Iraq is witnessing today. After these changes, we are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That new Iraq, in the eyes of many Kurds, will not include them: They have had autonomy since the 1991 Gulf War and the ensuing U.S. air campaign to protect them from Saddam Hussein.

Barzani reiterated today he plans an independence referendum that could have major regional implications. Kurds live not only in Iraq, but in southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and in Iran. In the meantime, the Kurds’ formidable military force, the Peshmerga, are acting as a bulwark against ISIL insurgents in Northern Iraq. They have also cemented their control of Kirkuk, a vital oil-producing center.

Elsewhere, Iraqi armed forces claimed today to have retaken from ISIL Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Baiji and two posts on its western border.

MAJ. GEN. QASSEM ATTA AL-MOUSSAWI, Iraqi Armed Forces (through interpreter): We affirm that the refinery is now under complete control of the security forces and have regained full control over Turaibil and al-Walid border crossings. And we have reinforced our troops there. The great thing was the support and backing of the tribes of Anbar province.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fighting has raged around Baiji for a week, and the Sunni tribes have become interlocutors between the Sunni ISIL forces and the largely Shiite-led Iraqi government forces.

But, as chaos spreads, neighboring Jordan has reinforced its border with Iraq with armored vehicles and troops. And the first of 300 U.S. special forces advisers began arriving on Monday.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimated more than 1,000 people have been killed in two weeks of fighting, but it warned that number is very much a minimum.