ARBIL (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry made an unannounced visit to Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Tuesday as part of an urgent diplomatic drive to stop the fractious country tearing apart.
A day after meeting Iraqi Arab leaders in Baghdad to discuss a lightning assault by Sunni militants, the top US diplomat landed in Arbil to urge Iraqi Kurdistan's president, Mr Massud Barzani, to work to uphold Iraq's cohesion.
Mr Kerry would highlight "the important role that the Kurds can play in helping the central government address... challenges for the benefit of all Iraqis," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
The militant offensive has cleared the way for Iraqi Kurds - who were once gassed by former dictator Saddam Hussein - to take control of a swathe of disputed territory they want to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad's strong objections.
Crucially, their security forces are now responsible for securing the ethnically mixed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, the heart of that disputed territory.
"Now we are living a different era," Mr Barzani told CNN ahead of Tuesday's talks, as he called for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom he described as "the one responsible for what has happened" in Iraq, to step down.
"During the last 10 years we did everything in our ability... to build a new democratic Iraq, but unfortunately the experience has not been successful."
Pressed on whether Iraqi Kurds would seek independence, Mr Barzani said: "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.
"Iraq is obviously falling apart anyway, and it's obvious that a federal or central government has lost control over everything."
Sunni insurgents, led by the jihadist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), have pressed their offensive by seizing the strategic town of Tal Afar in northern Iraq, while security forces retook a border crossing with Syria from the militants on Monday.
Iraqi forces are struggling to hold their ground in the face of the drive, which has seized major areas of five provinces.
"This is a critical moment for Iraq's future," Mr Kerry said on Monday after meeting Mr Maliki in Baghdad.
"It is a moment of decision for Iraq's leaders, and it's a moment of great urgency. Iraq faces an existential threat, and Iraq's leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands."
US officials acknowledged that the gains made by Kurds in recent weeks in the fighting might not be easily reversed.
At the same time, Washington is keen to persuade the Kurds to speed up the formation of a new government following April elections.
Under a de facto system in Iraq following recent elections, a Kurd has traditionally held the presidency, a Shi'ite Arab has been the prime minister and a Sunni Arab has been the speaker of parliament.
"The Kurds have a better role to play in maintaining the stability of the state here to some extent," a senior State Department official told reporters.
"If they decide to withdraw from the Baghdad political process, it will accelerate a lot of the negative trends," he warned.
But if the Kurds take an active role "they will have substantial clout and influence in Baghdad".
The region has also taken in thousands of people displaced by the militant offensive, and Mr Kerry's visit aimed to recognise their efforts to tackle "a very serious refugee crisis".