Kerry returns to Iraq Tuesday to meet with key leader

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Kerry returns to Iraq Tuesday to meet with key leader
Kurdish regional foreign relations minister Falah Mustafa Bakir (C) and other officials look on as US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) is greeted by Fuad Hussein, chief of staff at the presidency of the Kurdistan regional government, at Arbil International Airport on June 24, 2014. Kerry met in Arabil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, with regional government president Massud Barzani (unseen) as part of a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry met with Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani as part of a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry signs a guest book before his meeting with Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani (unseen) at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Arbil in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry signs a guest book before a meeting with Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Arbil in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry checks the date on his watch before signing a guest book before a meeting with Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani (unseen) at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Arbil in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Arbil in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani (R) shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry during their meeting at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Arbil in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdistan regional government president Massud Barzani (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Arbil in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdistan Regional Government President Massud Barzani (R) and US Secretary of State John Kerry talk before a meeting at the presidential palace in Arbil, the capital of northern Iraq's Kurdistan autonomous region, on June 24, 2014. Kerry arrived in Iraq's Kurdish region in a US diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart in the face of Sunni militants pushing towards Baghdad. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry boards a cargo plane at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman on June 24, 2014 on his way to Kurdish territories in the north of Iraq for a second day of talks with Iraqi leaders about the increasing insurgent crisis as cities continue to fall to groups like ISIS. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
A member of the Iraqi security forces stops a car at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the central Iraqi Shiite city of Karbala, on June 23, 2014. US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad today to push for stability, as Sunni militants seized a strategic town and a border crossing, tightening their grip on north and west Iraq. AFP PHOTO /MOHAMMED SAWAF (Photo credit should read MOHAMMED SAWAF/AFP/Getty Images)
BAGHDAT, IRAQ - JUNE 23: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference at the Embassy of the USA in Baghdad, Iraq o June 23, 2014. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAT, IRAQ - JUNE 23: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference at the Embassy of the USA in Baghdad, Iraq o June 23, 2014. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAT, IRAQ - JUNE 23: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference at the Embassy of the USA in Baghdad, Iraq o June 23, 2014. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
BAGHDAT, IRAQ - JUNE 23: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a media conference at the Embassy of the USA in Baghdad, Iraq o June 23, 2014. (Photo by Stringer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the US embassy in the International Zone June 23, 2014 in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Kerry pledged 'intense' support for Iraq against the 'existential threat' of a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry pauses while speaking during a press conference at the US embassy in the International Zone June 23, 2014 in the Iraqi capital Baghdad. Kerry pledged 'intense' support for Iraq against the 'existential threat' of a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west. AFP PHOTO / POOL / BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq (R) greets US Secretary of State John Kerry before a meeting on June 23, 2014 in the capital Baghdad. Kerry pledged 'intense' support for Iraq against the 'existential threat' of a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west. AFP PHOTO / POOL/ BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Usama al-Nujayfi (C-R) greets US Secretary of State John Kerry (C-L) in Baghdad June 23, 2014. Kerry is visiting Iraqi leaders discuss the increasing violence and instability in country caused by insurgents including ISIS. AFP Photo/POOL/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) arrives to meet with Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Usama al-Nujayfi in Baghdad June 23, 2014. Kerry is visiting Iraqi leaders discuss the increasing violence and instability in country caused by insurgents including ISIS. AFP Photo/POOL/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki (R) and US Secretary of State John Kerry meet at the Prime Minister's Office in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. Kerry was in Baghdad to push for Iraqi unity and stability, as Sunni militants swept through western towns abandoned by the security forces. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (R) meets US Secretary of State John Kerry (L) in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. Kerry was in Baghdad to push for Iraqi unity and stability, as Sunni militants swept through western towns abandoned by the security forces. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (R) meets US Secretary of State John Kerry (background-L) in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. Kerry was in Baghdad to push for Iraqi unity and stability, as Sunni militants swept through western towns abandoned by the security forces. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari meets US Secretary of State John Kerry (unseen) in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. Kerry was in Baghdad to push for Iraqi unity and stability, as Sunni militants swept through western towns abandoned by the security forces. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Usama al-Nujayfi (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Baghdad June 23, 2014. Kerry is visiting Iraqi leaders discuss the increasing violence and instability in country caused by insurgents including ISIS. AFP Photo/POOL/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Usama al-Nujayfi (R) meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Baghdad June 23, 2014. Kerry is visiting Iraqi leaders discuss the increasing violence and instability in country caused by insurgents including ISIS. AFP Photo/POOL/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi Speaker of Parliament Usama al-Nujayfi meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry (unseen) in Baghdad June 23, 2014. Kerry is visiting Iraqi leaders discuss the increasing violence and instability in country caused by insurgents including ISIS. AFP Photo/POOL/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
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BY LARA JAKES
AP NATIONAL SECURITY WRITER

IRBIL, Iraq (AP) -- The top U.S. diplomat returned to Iraq on Tuesday for the second day in a row, again trying to convince one of its political leaders that overhaul of the Shiite-led government is the best way to deflate a raging Sunni insurgency that is pushing the country toward civil war.

Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Irbil, the capital of Iraq's northern, autonomous Kurdish region, for talks with a key local leader who has feuded for years with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Kerry is hoping that support from Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani will force al-Maliki to cede more power to Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities and, in turn, soothe anger directed at Baghdad that has fueled the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.

Barzani's support is important because Kurds represent about 20 percent of Iraq's population and usually vote as a unified bloc. That has made Kurds kingmakers in Iraq's national political process.

Tensions have run deep for years between Barzani and al-Maliki, and recently surged again when the Kurdish regional government began exporting oil through Turkey without giving Baghdad a required share of the profits. The Kurdish region is home to several vast oil fields, which have reaped security and economic stability unmatched across the rest of the Iraq.

Kerry met several top Iraqi leaders in Baghdad on Monday, including al-Maliki, in what was later described as a tit-for-tat discussion of frustration and few compromises. Still, Kerry said all the leaders agreed to start the process of seating a new government by July 1, which will advance a constitutionally-required timetable for distributing power among Iraq's political blocs, which are divided by sect and ethnicity.

Once a stable government is in place, officials hope Iraqi security forces will be inspired to fight the insurgency instead of fleeing, as they did in several major cities and towns in Sunni-dominated areas since the start of the year.

U.S. special forces began arriving in Baghdad this week to train and advise Iraqi counterterror soldiers, under order from President Barack Obama, who is reluctantly sending American military might back to the war zone it left in 2011 after more than eight years of fighting. Al-Maliki has for months requested U.S military help to quell ISIL, and the Obama administration has said it must respond to the insurgent threat before it spreads beyond Iraq's borders and puts the West at risk of attack.

On Monday, Kerry said the U.S. is prepared to strike the militants even if Baghdad delays political reforms.

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