WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The unity of Iraq "is voluntary and not compulsory," the head of the country's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said on Wednesday, while stressing the Kurds had no immediate plans to break away from the central government in Baghdad.
Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani was speaking in Washington after holding talks earlier with U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on issues that included the campaign to battle Islamic State.
The White House said that in those talks, Obama and Biden stressed that Washington supports "a united, federal and democratic Iraq."
There have been fears that the country could fracture further along ethnic and religious lines following rapid advances by Islamic State, a radical militant group.
Barzani said the Kurds were coordinating with Baghdad in the fight against Islamic state, where their Peshmerga military forces have played a major role. But he voiced the Kurds' long-held dream of their own independent state.
"Certainly the independent Kurdistan is coming," he said, speaking through a translator at an event sponsored by the Atlantic Council and U.S. Institute of Peace think tanks. "It's a continued process. It will not stop, it will not step back.
Iraq's unity "is voluntary and not compulsory, so therefore the important thing is for attempts to be made for everyone in Iraq to have that conviction that it would be a voluntary union and not a forced union," he said. He added that any changes in Iraq's make-up should be made peacefully.
Barzani said the Kurdistan Regional Government, based in Irbil, has not received 17 percent of Iraq's federal budget due to it under an agreement in which the Kurds are supposed to export an average of 550,000 barrels of oil per day.
Irbil has not always been able to meet its export target, and the cash-strapped Baghdad government has missed payments in the past.
"We hope that Baghdad honors that agreement," Barzani said.
Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Warren Strobel; editing by Andrew Hay