BAGHDAD – Secretary of State John Kerry arrived here on Monday morning, making an unannounced stop in this war-torn country to meet with a range of Iraqi leaders, including embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
During a daylong visit, Kerry is planning to urge Iraqi leaders to quickly form a more 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.
“He will discuss US actions underway to assist Iraq as it confronts this threat from [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and urge Iraqi leaders to move forward as quickly as possible...to forge a government that represents the interests of all Iraqis,” said Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the State Department.
Kerry arrived into a barren landscape aboard a hulking C-17 military plane.
In addition to Maliki, Kerry is also planning to meet with foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari; Ammar Hakim, who is the head of a Shia party called the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq; and Deputy Prime Minister Salih Mutlaq, who also has a bloc of primarily Sunnis and won a number of seats in the most recent election.
Kerry, on the first leg of a tour of Middle East capitals, did not call for the resignation of Maliki on Sunday, but 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 in Cairo 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. US officials don’t believe Baghdad is under threat, but are deeply concerned about the growing reach of the militants.
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 on Sunday night before traveling into Iraq on Monday.
His trip comes just days after President Obama announced that 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 broader region-wide effort. He is underscoring the threat that the group of Sunni militants — known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, , and also as ISIL or ISIS — poses not only to Iraq but to its neighbors and the United States.
President Obama also warned in an interview Sunday that the Sunni militants could grow further 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 U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up,’’ Obama 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 Malaki 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.”
Following the recent certification of election results, the new parliament will convene on June 30 to choose a new speaker. Over the next six weeks, they would choose a new president and prime minister, but the timelines can be accelerated.
“We are encouraging them to act as swiftly as possible,” a senior official said. “So that’ll be obviously a key theme of the visit.”
Maliki’s bloc won 92 seats in parliament, but to maintain his position as prime minister, he would need 165 seats.
“The configurations for forming a government are almost endless,” said a senior State Department official, briefing reporters before Kerry’s arrival.
“Our message is we can’t figure this out for you,” added the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Because I guarantee you, if we said Mr. X should be speaker, there would then be Mr. Y and Mr. Z who would say, ‘Ah, The Americans are trying to interfere.’ And then – so our message is there’s urgency. There’s now a timeline. You guys really need to figure this out.”
Kerry is also expected to speak with Iraqi officials about the type of assistance the US is preparing to provide. There is a major increase in intelligence gathering, which could help Iraq respond to lost territory in the northern parts of the country. The US is also planning to deliver additional supplies as early as Wednesday.
“There’s no quick fix here. There’s no magic airstrike that’s going to change the entire situation,” the senior official said. “But they want to know that we see the threat, that’s a threat that we all share, and that we’re committed to helping them fight it.”
The Iraqi military is extremely limited in the air, the official said, with a limited number of helicopters and only two Cessna planes that can fire Hellfire missiles.
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 convince neighboring countries to do more to crack down on sources of funding for ISIL.
“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 second 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.”
The US has also been in ongoing negotiations around what types of legal protections will be provided to the additional US troops who are being sent to Iraq. Providing legal immunity for US troops has been controversial in the past, and it was a key sticking point that led to the complete withdrawal of US troops in 2011.
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 Malaki 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 Shiites, and Iran has said it would be willing to provide military aid.
“We strongly oppose the intervention of the U.S. 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.
“The main dispute in Iraq is between those who want Iraq to join the U.S. camp and those who seek an independent Iraq,” Khamenei said. “The U.S. aims to bring its own blind followers to power.”
Kerry last week initially indicated that the US was open to working with Iran but he later clarified that the US 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 State 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 the past.
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 starstruck 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 deja vu all over again for Kerry.”