BAGHDAD: Secretary of State John Kerry Monday promised “intense and sustained” U.S. support for Iraq, but said the divided country would only survive if its leaders took urgent steps to bring it together.
Hours before Kerry arrived in Baghdad, Sunni tribes that have joined a militant takeover of northern Iraq seized the only legal crossing point with Jordan, security sources said, leaving troops with no presence along the entire western frontier which includes some of the Middle East’s most important trade routes.
U.S. President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq but held off granting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government’s request for airstrikes to counter the two-week advance by Sunni militants.
Officials have meanwhile called for Iraqis to form an inclusive government. The insurgency has been fueled largely by a sense of marginalization and persecution among Iraq’s Sunnis.
“The support will be intense and sustained and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective,” Kerry told reporters in Baghdad.
He said Maliki had “on multiple occasions affirmed his commitment to July 1” as the date to start the formation of a new government bringing in more Sunnis and Kurds to share power, a move Washington is keen to see.
Iraqi and Jordanian security sources said tribal leaders were negotiating to hand the Turabil desert border post to Sunni Islamists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) who took two main crossings with Syria in recent days and have pushed the government’s forces back toward Baghdad.
Iraq state television said Monday that the army had recaptured both the crossing with Jordan and the al-Waleed crossing with Syria. Reuters could not independently confirm reports due to security restrictions.
Jordan has reinforced its border after militants overran the crossing, a security official said.
“The Jordanian army has dispatched more troops, tanks, rocket launchers and armored personnel carriers to the border with Iraq,” the official told AFP.
“The army will not tolerate any kind of infiltration.”
Jordan’s Information Minister and government spokesman Mohammad Momani described the measures as “precautionary.”
Iran too has stepped up surveillance along its long border with Iraq, a senior official said Monday.
“Due to the unique situation in Iraq and its proximity to our western regions, we have taken duly precautions to shore up control, watch and fortifications along the border,” Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli told reporters.
“But presently we have no worries,” the minister was quoted as saying by the official news agency IRNA.
Kurdish forces control a third border post with Syria in the north, leaving government troops with no presence along Iraq’s 800 km western border.
For the insurgents, capturing the frontier is a dramatic step toward the goal of erasing the modern border altogether and building a caliphate across swathes of Syria and Iraq.
Kerry said: “Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq’s leaders have to beat that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands. The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks.”
Washington, which withdrew its troops from Iraq in 2011 after an occupation that followed the 2003 invasion which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, has been struggling to help Maliki’s administration contain a Sunni insurgency led by ISIS, an Al-Qaeda offshoot which seized northern cities this month.
Washington is worried Maliki and fellow Shiites who have won U.S.-backed elections have worsened the insurgency by alienatinmoderate Sunnis who once fought Al-Qaeda but have now joined the ISIS revolt. While Washington has been careful not to say publicly it wants Maliki to step aside, Iraqi officials say such a message was delivered behind the scenes.
There was little small talk when Kerry met Maliki, the two men seated in chairs in a room with other officials.
The meeting lasted one hour and 40 minutes, after which Kerry was escorted to his car by Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari. As Kerry got in, he said: “That was good.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused Washington Sunday of trying to regain control of the country it once occupied – a charge Kerry denied.
Iraqis are due to form a new government after an election in April. Maliki’s list won the most seats in parliament but would still require allies to secure a majority.
Senior Iraqi politicians, including at least one member of Maliki’s own ruling list, have told Reuters that the message that Washington would be open to Maliki leaving power has been delivered in diplomatic language to Iraqi leaders. The Pentagon says the U.S. and Iraq have reached an agreement on legal protections for American commandos deploying into Iraq to assess and advise Iraqi forces.
Rear Adm. John Kirby says Iraq outlined acceptable legal assurances for the short-term mission in a diplomatic note ensuring that troops will not be subject to Iraq’s judicial process, but to the U.S. military’s code of justice. The legal protections are the same as those provided to U.S. employees and troops working at the embassy.
Two teams of special forces already in Iraq could begin their assessments later this week. Four more teams will join them soon.
Iraq refused to sign a legal protections agreement with the U.S. in 2011 so the U.S. didn’t leave a residual force there when combat ended.