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Kurds push for independence while Baghdad faces political turmoil

July 2, 2014 at 6:14 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the crisis in Iraq, where dozens more were killed today.

Here in Washington, Kurdish leaders are making their case for independence, despite pleas from the Obama administration to keep Iraq intact.

Our chief foreign affairs correspondent, Margaret Warner, reports.

MARGARET WARNER: The city of Tikrit has echoed with gunfire this week, as Iraqi troops battle to regain control from Sunni militants of the Islamic State, or ISIL.

Today, 100 miles away, in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned Iraq’s neighbors that the fighting there is just a sample of what could face them too.

NOURI AL-MALIKI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through interpreter): Whether it’s al-Qaida or ISIL, their transformation to a caliphate is a message to all states in the region that you are inside the red circle now. ISIL talked about the state of Iraq and the Levant and now talks about a caliphate. No one in Iraq or any neighboring country will be safe from these plans.

MARGARET WARNER: Maliki voiced hope that Iraq’s parliament will agree on a new unity government next week. But the Shiite political leader gave no indication he’d bow to pressure from Sunnis and Kurds to step down.

Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed autonomy in Northeastern Iraq since the 1991 Gulf War. Millions of other Kurds live in parts of Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Now Iraq’s Kurds are taking advantage of Baghdad’s battle with the insurgents. On June 12, they took control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a long-running source of dispute with Baghdad.

At the same time, their Peshmerga militia blocked encroachments by ISIL fighters and fortified new front lines. And Kurdish leaders are now vowing to hold a vote on independence, a move Prime Minister Maliki denounced today.

NOURI AL-MALIKI (through interpreter): Nobody has the right to take advantage of the current situation or to say, we are going to hold a referendum on establishing an independent Kurdish state. I tell the Kurdish people now that this will hurt you, and it will send the region into a disarray that you will not be able to get out of.

MARGARET WARNER: The U.S. is also concerned. Secretary of State John Kerry met in Irbil last week with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, urging him to works things out with Baghdad.