Kerry meets with Iraqi leaders amid rebel gains

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BAGHDAD — U.S. military advisers began moving into position here Monday, hours after Washington and Baghdad signed an immunity agreement, as Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States will protect its national security interests even if Iraqis cannot bridge their widening sectarian and political divides.

“If there is evidence that requires some kind of action” before Iraq forms a new government, President Barack Obama “maintains the prerogative of making that decision,” Mr. Kerry said, following crisis talks in Baghdad with Iraqi leaders.

As it prepares for possible U.S. air attacks against Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the administration has left open the door for strikes on both sides of the border. Senior officials in Washington have refused to rule out strikes against ISIS forces in Syria as well as Iraq, and have said the administration’s goal is to preserve some flexibility while awaiting assessments from the newly positioned U.S. military advisers.

Mr. Kerry arrived in Baghdad as ISIS forces captured a border crossing between Iraq and Jordan late Sunday, following their takeover of three more towns in western Iraq’s Anbar province over the weekend. The militants have continued a rapid offensive that seeks to erase the border between Iraq and Syria and dissolve modern Iraq.

The Obama administration is committed under existing strategic agreements to helping Iraq, Mr. Kerry said at a news conference after meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and leading Sunni and Kurdish officials. But he repeated Mr. Obama’s insistence that only the rapid resolution of Iraq’s sectarian divide, with the formation of a new government, offers a chance of stability. “Iraq faces an existential threat, and Iraq’s leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands,” Mr. Kerry said.

“The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks,” he said. “And the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a united stand … not next week, not next month, but now.”

In the meantime, he said, “President Obama has stated repeatedly that he will do what is necessary and what is in our national interest to confront [ISIS] and the threat that it poses to the security of the region and to our security in the long run.”

Mr. Maliki, who has largely defined himself as a nationalist unwilling to take orders from the United States, has asked for U.S. airstrikes to stop the rebels’ march toward Baghdad.

If Mr. Obama does decide to move against ISIS, it will be in defense of U.S., regional and Iraqi interests, and not in support of any individual Iraqi leader, Mr. Kerry said.

Iraq has had a caretaker government since parliamentary elections this spring. Mr. Kerry implored political leaders to quickly form a new government, a process that in the past has involved months of horse-trading. But Mr. Kerry said Mr. Maliki and the other leaders pledged to meet a July 1 deadline to convene the new parliament, elected in April and certified last week, and begin the process of selecting a cabinet, president and, finally, a prime minister.

The Obama administration has done little to dampen speculation that it would support Mr. Maliki’s ouster as prime minister, although Mr. Kerry was careful to say the choice is not up to Washington. Officials in Washington have been trying to balance the need to push Iraq toward an inclusive government with preparations to take action against ISIS if it crosses an unspecified security line, which one senior U.S. official said they would know when they see it.

United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Barack Obama - District of Columbia - Iraq - John Kerry - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad - Jordan - Hoshyar Mahmud Zebari


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