US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad Monday on a mission to push for Iraqi unity and stability to confront a militant offensive threatening to tear the country apart.
Flying in from Jordan on a visit which the State Department had sought to keep secret amid security concerns, Kerry was to meet with beleaguered Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and "Iraqi leaders from across the political spectrum," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Last week President Barack Obama announced that he was sending up to 300 military advisors to assist the Iraqi security forces, which are battling militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and was considering ordering up air strikes.
Kerry "will discuss US actions underway to assist Iraq as it confronts this threat from ISIL and urge Iraqi leaders to move forward as quickly as possible with its government formation process to forge a government," Psaki said.
- Not 'picking and choosing' -
The trip comes a day after Kerry hinted Washington's support for the Shiite premier Maliki was waning even though he insisted the US was not "picking and choosing" Iraq's leaders.
"The United States would like to see the Iraqi people find leadership that is prepared to represent all of the people of Iraq," Kerry told reporters in Cairo on Sunday at the end of a surprise visit to Egypt.
He noted that minority Kurds and Sunni Arabs, and even some within Maliki’s own Shiite community, had voiced dissatisfaction with the premier's leadership, and said the government had to "rise above sectarian motivations".
The Iraqi government has "to be inclusive and share power in a way that will maximise the ability of Iraq to focus on the real danger at this moment from an external source, which is ISIL," Kerry insisted.
A top US official who has been on the ground in Iraq told reporters that there was "a lot of anxiety and a lot of looking to the US for help".
Kerry's message to Iraqi leaders would be that even though US troops withdrew in 2011, Washington had the "highest level of commitment to Iraq," he said.
He would also do "person-to-person diplomacy with the key leaders and the key blocs as they work towards forming a new government along the constitutional timeline," the official added.
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Kerry also has back-to-back meetings in Brussels and Paris with NATO and Gulf allies later in the week.
The top US diplomat called on all of Iraq's neighbours to urge Iraqis "to form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people."
The Sunni militants pressed their advance in western Iraq on Sunday, killing 21 people after security forces abandoned a string of towns, allowing the insurgents to widen access to Syria.
The advance marked the latest in a series of setbacks for Iraqi forces, which are struggling to hold their ground in the face of the onslaught that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
The militants, led by ISIL, seized the towns of Rawa and Ana after taking the Al-Qaim border crossing on Saturday, residents said.
- Iraq in political limbo -
Kerry's task has been complicated as Iraq is in a political limbo after April elections in which Maliki won the largest number of seats, but not a majority, meaning some bitter bargaining to form a coalition.
"It all comes down to the maths and how they can put together a governing coalition... what makes this one so complicated is that it's so fractured," the US official told reporters on a conference call.
Under a de facto system in Iraq following recent elections, a Kurd has traditionally held the presidency, a Shiite Arab has been the prime minister and a Sunni Arab has been the speaker of parliament.
But no side has yet put forward their candidate, leading to a political stalemate. "A lot of decisions have to be made by Iraqis and they have to be made soon," the US official said.
Kerry also warned all countries, particularly in the Gulf, that "there is no safety margin whatsoever in funding a group like ISIL."
"We particularly discourage individuals in the region who may have been sending money through some innocent charity or through various backchannel initiatives under the guise that it's for the general welfare and benefit of people who've been displaced."