The United States on Wednesday shrugged off a warning by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that he would not accept a national emergency government, following US calls for an inclusive coalition to outride the current crisis.
US officials said they believed that Maliki was still committed to opening a process on piecing together a government on July 1, following his assurances to that effect to Secretary of State John Kerry.
In fact, there was some uncertainty in Washington as to what Maliki was referring when he said "the call to form a national emergency government is a coup against the constitution and the political process."
In Brussels, Kerry said that he was not sure "exactly what it is that he rejected or spoke to."
Kerry said there had been no discussion on framing a short-term national salvation government when he met Maliki and other leaders of different ethnic and religious sects in Baghdad this week.
In Washington, US officials told AFP that the less eye-catching portions of Maliki's speech were in fact more significant.
"He committed to completing the electoral process, convening the new parliament and moving forward with the constitutional process for government formation," a senior US official said, on condition of anonymity.
"He also called on all Iraqis to put differences aside and unite their efforts against terrorism.
"We view these commitments as in line with the commitments that were made during the Secretary's visit and the constitutional process that we have urged all Iraqis to commit to at this critical moment for Iraq’s future."
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Maliki's speech had been "misinterpreted."
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
"We believe it's dire enough that they need to move as quickly as possible -- and we believe they can -- to form a government. But they should not do things outside of their own constitution."
President Barack Obama and other top administration officials have repeatedly called on Iraq to produce a unified government that allows Kurds and Sunnis as well as Maliki's majority Shiite sect a place at the table.
They have also refused to endorse Maliki -- leaving the impression that they would prefer another leader untainted by what they see as his overly sectarian governing style.
Obama warns there is no ultimate military solution to the crisis in Iraq, sparked by massive land grabs by radical Sunni militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite sending 300 military observers to assess the needs of Baghdad's forces.
- Tone shift -
The administration's reading of Maliki's remarks was endorsed by Colin Kahl, a former Obama administration defense official for the Middle East, now with Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
"What Maliki said was that he was not in support of setting up an emergency administration," Kahl said.
"But in the same address, he did call for national unity and struck a much more conciliatory tone.
"The tone appears to have shifted quite dramatically since Secretary Kerry's visit," he added.
Maliki branded demands for a national unity government as an attempt to invalidate his elections in which his bloc won by far the most seats in parliament on April 30.
But he fell short of a majority in Iraq's Council of Representatives, and has had to court the support of rivals in order to form a government.