CAIRO – Secretary of State John Kerry launched a tour of Middle East capitals on Sunday by urging Iraq to quickly form an inclusive government that could help stem some of the sectarian violence that is engulfing the country and drawing the United States back into a conflict it tried to leave three years ago.
Although Kerry did not call for the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as he sketched out a future for the war-torn country he pointedly called for broader leadership beyond the much-criticized head of state.
“This is a critical moment where together we must urge Iraq’s leaders to rise above sectarian motivations and form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people,” Kerry said at a press conference here following meetings with Egyptian leaders. “The United States would like to see the Iraqi people find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq, that is prepared to be inclusive and share power.”
Sunni militants continued expanding their reach on Sunday, taking further control of the Iraq-Syria border and capturing four more towns in northern and western Iraq, including one that is just 60 miles from Baghdad.
Kerry is on a diplomatic mission to the Middle East aiming to come up with a political solution, even as Iraq continues to descend into chaos. Under heavy security — and about 24 hours after spending a picturesque morning on Nantucket — Kerry arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday night. He is expected to soon travel into Iraq.
His trip comes days after President Obama announced he was dispatching up to 300 military advisers and amid growing dissatisfaction with Maliki, a Shi’ite who has deepened the sectarian divisions with Sunni Muslims.
In his meetings over several days in the Middle East and Europe, Kerry is raising several issues as he attempts to trigger a region-wide effort. He is underscoring the threat that the group of Sunni militants — known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — poses not only to Iraq but to its neighbors and the United States.
Obama also warned in an interview Sunday that the Sunni militants could strengthen and “could spill over into some of our allies like Jordan.’’
He pointed to several other emerging threats in North Africa.
“What we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send US troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up,’’ Obama said in an interview recorded on Friday that aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” ‘‘We’re going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy and we’re going to have to partner and train local law enforcement and military to do their jobs as well.’’
The United States has not explicitly called on Maliki to step down, and it is unlikely Kerry will do so during his trip. US officials have suggested that calling for his ouster would potentially have the opposite effect, emboldening Maliki and his allies.
But there is growing pressure on the Iraqi prime minister, and Kerry is also urging Iraqi leaders to expedite the formation of a government that will be far more inclusive and include the voices of Sunnis and Kurds.
“The United States is not engaged in picking or choosing or advocating for any one individual or series of individuals to assume the leadership of Iraq. That is up to the Iraqi people. We have made that clear since day one,” Kerry said. “But we do note that the Kurds have expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation, the Sunni have expressed dissatisfaction with the current situation, and some Shia have expressed dissatisfaction.”
In his discussions in Middle East capitals, Kerry is likely to talk about potential disruptions in the global oil supply that could come as a result of the escalating conflict in Iraq, one of the world’s top oil-producing countries.
Kerry is also attempting to persuade neighboring countries to do more to crack down on sources of funding for ISIS.
“A lot of the funding and support that has over a long period of time fueled extremism inside Iraq has flowed into Iraq from its neighbors,” said a senior State Department official, briefing reporters during the trip on the condition of anonymity. “And that does not mean that it’s the result of an official government policy in many if not most cases, but it does mean that some of these governments can do more to stop some of that facilitation.”
During his stop in Cairo, Kerry also maintained that the United States was not to blame for the unfolding situation.
“What’s happening in Iraq is not happening because of the United States in terms of this current crisis,” Kerry said. “The United States shed blood and worked hard for years to provide Iraqis the opportunity to have their own governance.
“We’ve shed our blood, and we’ve done what we can to provide that opportunity,” he said. “So we’re not going to put additional combat soldiers there. But we will help Iraqis to complete this transition, if they choose it.”
Kerry’s unannounced stop in Cairo marked the highest-ranking visit by a US official since Abdel Fattah el-Sissi won the presidency last month. Relations with Sissi have been strained since he overthrew and jailed Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader.
Kerry raised several thorny issues during the meeting, including jailing journalists, punishing political opponents, and allowing mass trials where death sentences are issued to hundreds.
The knotty conflict in Iraq has few obvious solutions, and several analysts said Kerry’s trip was likely to be the first step in a long process.
“This is a long movie,” said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars who has served as a Middle East adviser for Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. “You’re just not going to get quick results here, unless there is a real determination on the Shia and Kurds to dislodge Maliki from power. The fight against ISIS is a long term effort. We don’t even have the military assets in place, much less eyes on the ground.”
“I would keep expectations low,” Miller added. “We’re not going to transform anything. At a minimum, you’re going to prevent ISIS from taking over the country.”
Further complicating the regional politics, Iran’s top leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday that he opposed a heightened US role in Iraq. Iran and Iraq are both led by Shi’ites, and Iran has said he would be willing to provide military aid.
“We strongly oppose the intervention of the US and others in the domestic affairs of Iraq,” Khamenei was quoted as saying by the IRNA state news agency, in his first comments on the latest crisis.
Kerry last week initially indicated that the United States was open to working with Iran but he later clarified that it was only interested in communicating with Iran — not coordinating any military response.
“That’s a major concern for the Iraqis,” said retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes, a former adviser to US occupation authorities in Iraq who is now a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace. “You’ve got to somehow factor in Iran and how you relate to them. To the Saudis, to the Jordanians, they’re going to be iffy about that because they’ve got their differences with Iran. But we can’t ignore them. We just have to be careful in how we deal with them.”
Kerry has a long history in Iraq and has made numerous trips there. In 2006, he went as a US senator, traveling with a small entourage.
He held a series of meetings, with some leaders appearing a bit star-struck over the recent presidential candidate.
“He was there to educate the Iraqi leaders about what was happening in the United States: the costs, the casualties, violence, sectarianism,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Iraq who sat in on the meetings with Kerry. “He was warning them if they didn’t get their act together it would be difficult to sustain support in the United States. It was a similar situation. It could be déjà vu all over again for Kerry.”