U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, during a surprise visit to Baghdad, has urged Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to enter into dialogue to end their bitter dispute and ease tensions in the country.
"We have friends both in Baghdad, and we have friends in Irbil, and we encourage both parties to enter into discussion and dialogue," Tillerson said in Baghdad during his brief stop on October 23.
Tillerson was in Iraq after making a similarly unannounced stop in Afghanistan following his planned visits to Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The top U.S. diplomat met with Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to discuss Baghdad's battle against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and Iraqi forces' efforts to take over areas that have been under control of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
Iraqi and Kurdish leaders have been at loggerheads since the Kurds held a September 25 referendum on independence, which Baghdad has said was illegal and which the United States, the United Nations, and others also opposed.
Comments by Tillerson prior to his arrival in Baghdad had already increased tensions in the region.
Speaking on October 22 after a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Abadi in Saudi Arabia, Tillerson said it was time for Iranian military advisers and fighters "to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control."
"Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against [IS] is coming to a close, those militias need to go home," Tillerson said. "The foreign fighters in Iraq need to go home and allow the Iraqi people to regain control."
A senior U.S. official said Tillerson’s remarks referred to militia fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and the Quds Force, the foreign arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
A statement issued by Abadi’s office a day later responded to Tillerson’s remarks by saying "no party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters."
Abadi told Tillerson that the PMF "is an official institution among state bodies," which includes "Iraqi fighters who fought terrorism and defended their country."
"We should encourage them because they will be a hope for the country and the region," Abadi's office quoted him as telling Tillerson.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif assailed Tillerson's comments.
"If it wasn't for the sacrifices of the Islamic Republic of Iran, [IS] would have installed its government in Damascus, Baghdad, and [the Iraqi Kurdistan capital] Irbil by now," Zarif said.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused the group of committing war crimes.