By MATTHEW LEE
SYDNEY (AP) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urged Iraq's new leaders on Tuesday to work quickly to form an inclusive government and said the U.S. is prepared to offer it significant additional aid in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Kerry said the U.S. "stands ready to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government" and called on Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Ibadi "to form a new cabinet as swiftly as possible." As that happens, he said Washington would be ready "to fully support a new and inclusive Iraqi government, particularly in its fight against ISIL," the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
"Without any question, we are prepared to consider additional political, economic and security options as Iraq starts to build a new government," Kerry said. He added that the assistance would be "very much calculated to try to help stabilize the security situation, expand economic development and strengthen democratic institutions."
Kerry's comments came a day after Iraqi President Fouad Massoum selected al-Ibadi, the deputy speaker of parliament from current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite Dawa party, to be the new prime minister and gave him 30 days to present a new government to lawmakers for approval. But al-Maliki has balked at stepping aside and accused Massoum of violating Iraq's constitution.
The Obama administration believes new leadership is needed in Iraq, not only to face the immediate crisis of the rise of the Islamist militants but also to restore the confidence of the Iraqi people in democracy. Kerry said a new government should move quickly to resolve numerous initiatives that have stalled under al-Maliki's premiership, including a long-delayed oil law and constitutional reforms.
Kerry spoke in Sydney at a news conference with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and their Australian counterparts, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and Defense Minister David Johnston, at the conclusion of annual Australia-U.S. strategic talks known as AUSMIN.
Kerry would not outline the potential new U.S. assistance to Iraq, but as President Barack Obama has done numerous times in the past, he ruled out the return of American combat troops to the country.
Hagel said the Pentagon was considering additional aid to the Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish army, which is now handling the brunt of the fighting against the Islamists. He said increased coordination between Baghdad and the Kurdish capital of Irbil was encouraging and said the U.S. hoped to be able to build on that in the future as it determines how best to support the Iraqi armed forces.
"We think that's a signal for potential growing cooperation between Baghdad and Irbil," Hagel said.
Kerry's remarks Tuesday echoed comments made Monday by Obama, who welcomed new leadership in Iraq as "a promising step forward."
"The United States stands ready to support a government that addresses the needs and grievances of all Iraqi people," Obama said outside his rented vacation home on Martha's Vineyard, where he earlier huddled with advisers for updates on events on the other side of the world.
Obama's remarks came as the U.S. conducted more airstrikes against the Islamic State in northern Iraq, while Yazidis trapped by the militants' advance were escaping. "Our aircraft remain positioned to strike any terrorist forces around the mountain who threaten the safety of these families," Obama said.
In Washington, Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the 15 targeted strikes have slowed the Islamic State's advance but done little to degrade the militants' capacity as a fighting force.
"In the immediate areas where we've focused our strikes we've had a very temporary effect," Mayville said. "I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained, or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by" the Islamic State group.
The Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces who have started to make gains against the Islamic State, senior U.S. officials said, but the aid has so far been limited to automatic rifles and ammunition.
Previously, the U.S. sold arms in Iraq only to the government in Baghdad, which has largely failed in recent years to transfer them to the Kurdish forces in the north, American officials have said. Baghdad made some transfers with American help in recent days, since U.S. airstrikes began to support Kurdish forces fighting off the Islamic State advance toward the northern city of Irbil.
But U.S. officials decided to begin their own deliveries. The Kurdish peshmerga fighters had been losing ground to Islamic State militants in recent weeks, in part because they were outgunned and at times ran out of ammunition, officials said.
A Kurdish government official said the U.S. weapons already are being directly sent to Irbil - where U.S. personnel are based - consist mostly of light arms like AK-47s and ammunition.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace and Nedra Pickler in Chilmark, Mass., Lara Jakes, Ken Dilanian and Bradley Klapper in Washington and Lolita C. Baldor in Sydney contributed to this report.
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