The Trump administration is struggling to prevent a new powder keg from exploding in Iraq, where violence between the central government in Baghdad and the nation's Kurds in the north has displaced more than 180,000 people since the failed Kurdish independence push in September.
While the White House has had little public comment on recent clashes between the Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga forces, U.S. officials say they're scrambling behind the scenes, with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson engaging in telephone diplomacy aimed at defusing the situation.
"We are on this 24/7, and we understand very clearly the peril that's involved here," said one official privy to the effort to stave off a "direct military confrontation" between the two sides, which prior to September had been working together in a delicate alliance with Washington against the Islamic State terror group in northern Iraq.
"They're both very good friends of ours," the official said. "We've worked with both Baghdad and [the Kurds] pretty successfully for years, and it is something we do not want to see escalate."
The situation was complicated by a fresh outbreak of violence Thursday in nearby southern Turkey, where there were reports of as many as 39 people killed in clashes between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The PKK, which Ankara and Washington list as a terrorist organization, has waged an on-again, off-again insurgency in southeastern Turkey since the 1990s. But Thursday's skirmishes, which occurred near the Iraq-Turkey border, sparked concerns that the current turmoil gripping the Iraqi side of the border may be spreading.