John Kerry arrives in Iraq during tensest time since U.S. withdrawal of troops
By LARA JAKES and HAMZA HENDAWI
BAGHDAD (AP) -- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday urged Iraq's top Shiite leaders to give more government power to political opponents before a Sunni insurgency seizes more control across the country and sweeps away hopes for lasting peace.
The closed-door meeting between Kerry and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not expected to be friendly, given that officials in Washington have floated suggestions that the Iraqi premier should resign as a necessary first step toward quelling the vicious uprising.
Nor will it likely bring any immediate, tangible results, as al-Maliki has shown no sign of leaving and Iraqi officials have long listened to - but ultimately ignored - U.S. advice to avoid appearing controlled by the decade-old specter of an American occupation in Baghdad.
Still, Kerry appeared encouraged after the discussion with al-Maliki, which ran for a little over 90 minutes and was held in the same complex where an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at former President George W. Bush as an insult in 2008.
Walking to his motorcade after the meeting, Kerry said "that was good." He was being escorted by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. Kerry also met with the influential Shiite cleric, Ammar al-Hakim, and with Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, one of Iraq's top-ranking Sunnis.
In his meeting with al-Nujaifi, Kerry said "these are difficult times." He said President Barack Obama and the American people remain committed to Iraq and are concerned about its security and the political chaos.
"But the principal concern is for the Iraqi people - for the integrity of the country, its borders, for its sovereignty," Kerry said.
Al-Nujaifi, who is from Mosul, which was overrun earlier this month by militants, described the Islamic extremists as "a threat to the entire world. And we have to confront it through direct military operations, political reforms so that we can inject a new hope into our own people so that they can support the political process and the unity of Iraq."
Iraqi officials briefed on Kerry's talks with the Iraqi prime minister said al-Maliki urged the United States to target the militants' positions in Iraq and neighboring Syria, citing training camps and convoys with airstrikes. The officials said Kerry responded by saying a great deal of care and caution must be taken before attacks are launched to avoid civilian casualties that could create the impression that Americans are attacking Sunnis.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media on the record.
Obama, in a round of television interviews that aired Monday in the U.S., said al-Maliki and the Iraqi leadership face a test as to whether "they are able to set aside their suspicions, their sectarian preferences for the good of the whole."
"And we don't know," Obama said. "The one thing I do know is that if they fail to do that then no amount of military action by the United States can hold that country together."
After suffering together through more than eight years of war - which killed nearly 4,500 American troops and more than 100,000 Iraqis - Washington and Baghdad are trying to shelve mutual wariness to curb the very real prospect of the Mideast nation falling into a fresh bout of sectarian strife.
A day earlier, in Cairo, Kerry said Iraq had reached a "critical moment" and urged leaders to rise above sectarian disputes to create a new government that gives more power to Sunnis and Kurds. Both groups - which together make up about 40 percent of Iraq's population - accuse al-Maliki of blocking them from holding equal authority in what is designed as a power-sharing government.
He was there in part to meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and discuss a regional solution to end the bloodshed by the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
Kerry arrived in Baghdad just a day after the Sunni militants captured two key border posts, one along the frontier with Jordan and the other with Syria, deepening al-Maliki's predicament. Their latest victories considerably expanded territory under the militants' control just two weeks after the al-Qaida breakaway group started swallowing up chunks of northern Iraq, heightening pressure on al-Maliki to step aside.
The offensive by ISIL takes the group closer to its dream of carving out an Islamic state straddling both Syria and Iraq. Controlling the borders with Syria will help it supply fellow fighters there with weaponry looted from Iraqi warehouses, boosting its ability to battle beleaguered Syrian government forces.
On Monday, gunmen ambushed a police convoy transferring prisoners about 85 miles (140 kilometers) south of Baghdad, killing nine policemen and 13 prisoners, according to police officials. The officials said some of the prisoners, some of whom were convicted of terrorism-related charges, were being taken to a high-security prison in the southern city of Nasiriyah 200 miles (320 kilometers) southwest of Baghdad. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The militants' stunning battlefield successes in the north and the west of Iraq have laid bare the inadequacies of the country's U.S.-trained forces. In the north, troops fled in the face of advancing militants, abandoning their weapons, vehicles and other equipment. In some cases in the west, they pulled out either when the militants approached or when they heard of other towns falling.
Sunday's capture by the militants of crossings bordering Jordan and Syria followed the fall on Friday and Saturday of the towns of Qaim, Rawah, Anah and Rutba, all of which are in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where the militants have since January controlled the city of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi.