RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, is back in Iraq on a week-long mission to try to hold that country together. This morning, he's in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north. And his job won't be easy. Just yesterday, Kurdistan's president said it might be the time for the region to go its own way. Jackie Northam is with Kerry and joined us from Erbil. Good morning.
JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, what exactly did the Kurdish president say?
NORTHAM: Well, President Barzani told CNN last night that the time is right for Kurdistan to seek independence. Remember, Kurdistan is a very different place from the rest of the country. It's kind of a safe and stable oasis here. When the Sunni extremists from ISIS began sweeping through northern Iraq, they came fairly close to Kurdistan. The Iraqi armed forces just folded, and they fled the area. Kurdistan's armed forces, which is a disciplined fighting machine known as the Peshmerga, moved in and were able to secure the area. They said it was to fill a power vacuum. But what they did is - they swallowed up disputed areas such as the city of Kirkuk in a major oil field. So Renee, the Kurds are now in full control of these areas. And this is where it gets tricky because it's not certain they're ever going to hand those areas back. When Secretary Kerry met with Barzani this morning, the Kurdish president said quote, "we are facing a new reality."
MONTAGNE: There must be things standing in the way of Kurdistan going its own way. What are those things?
NORTHAM: Well, you know, it's not certain that Kurdistan can make it on its own economically. It is a prosperous area, but it does need help, you know, from the federal government still and also from the central government, you know, with its connections to the international community, which Kurdistan by itself doesn't have yet. Analysts say that Barzani may be engaging in some rhetoric. Not that the Kurds don't have leverage, but he will likely know that the region may not be up to survive on its own. So that may give the Secretary Kerry some wiggle room in his discussions with the Kurdish leaders here in Kurdistan today.
MONTAGNE: Fill us in on how important the U.S. thinks Kurdistan is - why the U.S. needs the Kurds so badly in this situation?
NORTHAM: They need the Kurds to be part of a coalition government, to really provide stability to Iraq. You know, a primary focus of Kerry's week-long swing through the Mideast and Europe is to try and stop the spread of Islamic extremism in Iraq. And the Kurds are critical if there is to be a political solution to this problem. They would help form a coalition government along with the Sunnis and the Shiites. However, Renee, there has been a long simmering dispute between the Kurds and Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki over things like oil right, and also, the Kurds say the central government holds back their share of the federal budget as a punishment for Kurdistan's drive for independence. So Secretary Kerry really has a tough job ahead of him today in trying to convince the Kurdish leaders to go along with that.
MONTAGNE: Well, Jackie, just very briefly - how different is Erbil there in the Kurdistan region from Baghdad where you were yesterday?
NORTHAM: There's a big difference. Certainly, just physically - this is a much more hilly region as compared to Baghdad which is flat. But you just struck by how much more prosperous this area is really - just a number of construction cranes that are up all over the city and that there's a sense of vitality here as compared to Baghdad as well. Western companies are coming into this area, including oil companies. There's direct flights from here to Europe. It just is much more dynamic than it is in Baghdad and, certainly, in many other parts of Iraq.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Jackie Northam speaking to us from Erbil, Iraq. Thank you very much.
NORTHAM: Thank you Renee.
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.