John Kerry arrives in Iraq during tensest time since U.S. withdrawal of troops

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By LARA JAKES and HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

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.

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John Kerry arrives in Iraq during tensest time since U.S. withdrawal of troops
Iraqi Shiite women hold weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on June 18, 2014 in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf. Iraq's premier vowed today to 'face terrorism' and insisted security forces had suffered a 'setback' rather than defeat, as militants pressing a major offensive attacked the country's largest oil refinery. AFP PHOTO/HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi displaced people, who have fled violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province, walk past the wreckage of military vehicles upon their arrival in al-Hamdaniyah, 76 kms west of the Kurdish autonomous region's capital Arbil, on June 18, 2014. Saudi Arabia warned of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces. AFP PHOTO/KARIM SAHIB (Photo credit should read KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi army's newly recruited men gather June 18 2014 in the southern Shiite Muslim shrine city of Najaf following top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's call for Iraqis to take up arms against 'terrorists' who have overrun swathes of the country in a major offensive. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki vowed to 'face terrorism' while insisting Iraqi security forces that wilted under a major militant offensive had suffered a 'setback' but not a defeat. AFP PHOTO/HAIDAR HAMDANI (Photo credit should read HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi special forces keep watch as they secure a district in West Baghdad on June 18, 2014. Saudi Arabia warned today of the risks of a civil war in Iraq with unpredictable consequences for the region, after Sunni militants seized large areas from Shiite-led government forces. AFP PHOTO/SABAH ARAR (Photo credit should read SABAH ARAR/AFP/Getty Images)
PERSIAN GULF - APRIL 4 : A U.S. Marine Harrier jet lands on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Bon Homme Richard April 4, 2003 in the Persian Gulf. Harrier jets from the Bon Homme Richard continue to carry out bombing missions in support of the U.S.-led in Iraq. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
AT SEA - MARCH 25: A Tomahawk cruise missile flies toward Iraq after being launched from the AEGIS guided missile cruiser USS San Jacinto March 25, 2003 in the Red Sea. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Peshmargas of Iraq Kurdistan Regional Government patrol on the region to prevent infiltration of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants who seized Mosul, in Iraq on 12 June, 2014. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Kurdish Iraqi Peshmerga forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles on the outskirts of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, only 1 kilometre away from areas controlled by Sunni Muslim Jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on the main road between Kirkuk, Mosul and Baiji in northern Iraq on June 12, 2014. With ISIL's Islamist fighters closing in on the Iraqi capital Baghdad, forces from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region took control of disputed northern oil hub of Kirkuk to protect it from Islamist attack, officials said. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM (Photo credit should read MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
An Iraqi Kurdish security guard (Peshmerger) stands guard as Iraqi families fleeing violence in the northern Nineveh province gather at a Kurdish checkpoint in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region, on June 11, 2014. Since the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) began their spectacular assault in Mosul late on June 9, militants have captured a large swathe of northern and north-central Iraq, prompting as many as half a million people to flee their homes. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi military personnel in civilian clothes ride in the back of a truck as they flee from the northern city of Kirkuk, on June 11, 2014. Jihadists militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) executed 15 Iraqi security personnel in areas of Kirkuk province that the militants seized a day before, a senior police officer and local officials said. The Jihadists overran Iraq's second city of Mosul, the surrounding Nineveh province and parts of Kirkuk, in a major blow on June 10, that Washington warned threatens the entire region. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM (Photo credit should read MARWAN IBRAHIM/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) shakes hands with an Air Force soldier during a ceremony to mark the return of the United States Forces-Iraq and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011 ending the was after nearly nine years. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
ROCK HILL, SC - DECEMBER 14: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks as first lady Michelle Obama listens during a tribute to the troops on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The U.S. is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by December 31. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
ROCK HILL, SC - DECEMBER 14: First lady Michelle Obama (R) speaks as U.S. President Barack Obama listens during a tribute to the troops on December 14, 2011 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. The U.S. is ending its war in Iraq and all U.S. troops are scheduled to be out of Iraq by December 31. (Photo by Davis Turner/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraq war veterans on August 31, 2010 at Fort Bliss, Texas. Obama is to address Americans from the Oval Office in a televised speech at 8:00 pm (midnight GMT), after travelling to the military base in Texas to meet with soldiers recently returned from Iraq. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Iraq war veterans on August 31, 2010 at Fort Bliss, Texas. Obama is to address Americans from the Oval Office in a televised speech at 8:00 pm (midnight GMT), after travelling to the military base in Texas to meet with soldiers recently returned from Iraq. AFP PHOTO / TIM SLOAN (Photo credit should read TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, MD - DECEMBER 20: U.S. President Barack Obama (7th L) and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (5th L) greet troops during a ceremony to mark the return of the United States Forces-Iraq Colors and the end of the Iraq war on December 20, 2011 at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The last U.S. troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011 ending the was after nearly nine years. (Photo by Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
First Lady Michelle Obama (C) is hugged by US President Barack Obama as they deliver remarks to troops and military families at Fort Bragg, NC, December 14, 2011. Obama on Wednesday marked the US exit from Iraq by eulogizing fallen troops and seek to move Americans on from a divisive near nine-year war which he opposed. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/GettyImages)
US President Barack Obama shakes hands with General Lloyd James Austin, the last commanding general of US forces in Iraq, while greting returning troops with US Vice President Joe Biden (R) before attending a ceremony to mark the return of the US Forces - Iraq colors December 20, 2011 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The event marks the end of the Iraq war after the last US combat troops rolled out of Iraq into Kuwait on December 18. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize the control of Kirkuk where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had clashes, and Iraqi forces abandoned the city after these clashes, in Iraq, on June 13, 2014. Peshmerga forces, took the control of North Refineries and provided the security of the area, fight against the ISIL members in some part of the city. (Photo by Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Kurdish Peshmerga forces seize the control of Kirkuk where Iraqi army forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had clashes, and Iraqi forces abandoned the city after these clashes, in Iraq, on June 13, 2014. Peshmerga forces, took the control of North Refineries and provided the security of the area, fight against the ISIL members in some part of the city. (Photo by Mustafa Kerim/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi army troops chant slogans against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) as they recruit volunteers to join the fight against a major offensive by the jihadist group in northern Iraq, outside a recruiting centre in the capital Baghdad on June 13, 2014. Iraqi forces clashed with militants advancing on the city of Baquba, just 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Baghdad, as an offensive spearheaded by jihadists drew closer to the capital. AFP PHOTO / ALI AL-SAADI (Photo credit should read ALI AL-SAADI/AFP/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces stand guard at checkpoints around the camp. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa (L), the Kurdish Regional Government's Minister responsible for the Peshmerga, visits Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deployedoutside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Iraqi special forces deploy their troops and armoured vehicles outside of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq on June 12, 2014. The hardline militant group, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have taken control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, headed south and attacked parts of the city of Kirkuk and Tikrit on Wednesday. (Photo by Feriq Ferec/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
KIRKUK, IRAQ - JUNE 12: It announced that many abandoned military vehicles are seen at the road as militants of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seize the 12th division command and the commander and soldiers leave the military quarters, in Kirkuk, Iraq, on June 12, 2014. (Photo by Aram Kerkuki/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MOSUL, IRAQ - JUNE 13: Assyrian Christian nuns flee Mosul to the safe zones near Arbil city, due to the clashes between Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) members and Iraqi security forces, in Mosul, Iraq on June 13, 2014. People are placed to the camps built by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government near Arbil. (Photo by Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Iraqi children are given bags of bread at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in the country's northern Nineveh province on June 12, 2014, in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands of people who fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by jihadists wait in the blistering heat, hoping to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region and furious at Baghdad's failure to help them. As many as half a million people are thought to have fled Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10, after a spectacular assault that routed the army. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Iraqi children are given food at a temporary camp set up to shelter Iraqis fleeing violence in Iraq's northern Nineveh province on June 12, 2014, in Aski kalak, 40 kms West of Arbil, in the autonomous Kurdistan region. Thousands of people who fled Iraq's second city of Mosul after it was overrun by jihadists wait in the blistering heat, hoping to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region and furious at Baghdad's failure to help them. As many as half a million people are thought to have fled Mosul, which was captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) on June 10, after a spectacular assault that routed the army. AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. A tearful woman is seen at the camp. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ARBIL, IRAQ: People, fled Mosul seized by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the clashes between Iraqi security forces and ISIL, start to live in Hazer camp built at the borderline of Mosul by United Nations and Kurdish Regional Government, on June 12, 2014 in Arbil, Iraq. (Photo by Ferhat Demircan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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