US Secretary of State John Kerry has 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 of lasting peace.
The closed-door meeting in Baghdad between Mr Kerry and Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki was not thought to have been friendly, given that officials in Washington have floated suggestions that the premier should resign as a necessary first step towards quelling the vicious uprising.
Nor will it likely bring any immediate, tangible results, as Mr al-Maliki has shown no sign of leaving and Iraqi officials have long ignored US advice to avoid appearing controlled by the decade-old spectre of an American occupation in Baghdad.
But Mr Kerry appeared encouraged after the discussion with Mr 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, Mr Kerry said “that was good”.
Mr Kerry also met with the influential Shiite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and with parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq – the nation’s two highest-ranking Sunnis.
Iraqi officials briefed on Mr Kerry’s talks with the PM said Mr al-Maliki urged the United States to target the militants’ positions in Iraq and neighbouring Syria, citing training camps and convoys, with air strikes. The officials said Mr 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.
US President Barack Obama, in a round of television interviews that aired in the US yesterday, said Mr al-Maliki and the Iraqi leadership faced a test as to whether “they are able to set aside their suspicions, their sectarian preferences for the good of the whole”.
The president added: “And we don’t know. 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.”
In Cairo on Sunday Mr 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 per cent of Iraq’s population – accuse Mr 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 to discuss a regional solution to end the bloodshed by the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis).
Mr 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 Mr 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.
The offensive by Isis takes the group closer to its dream of carving out an Islamic state straddling both Syria and Iraq.