BAGHDAD (AP) — Warning of the "existential threat" posed by Sunni militants, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday the U.S. is prepared to take military action even if Baghdad delays political reforms, noting that the risks of letting the insurgency run rampant threaten dangers beyond Iraq's borders.
But he stressed military action would not be in support of the present Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Kerry, on a few hours' visit to Baghdad, urged Iraq's leaders to quickly set aside divisions as the only means of stopping the vicious Sunni insurgency and said Iraq's future depended on choices Iraq's leaders make in the next days and weeks.
"The future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq's leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL," Kerry told a news conference, using the acronym for the al-Qaida-breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, that has captured huge swathes of Iraqi territory in the north and west.
"Not next week, not next month, but now," he said. "It is essential that Iraq's leaders form a genuinely inclusive government as rapidly as possible."
It was a dire warning to leaders of Iraq's bitterly divided Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish communities that came at a time when the Middle Eastern nation was facing its worst crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. forces in late 2011 after eight years in Iraq.
The Sunni fighters have virtually erased Iraq's western border with Syria and also taken territory on the frontier with Jordan.
Noting the dangers the Sunni militants pose to Iraq and the region, Kerry said the U.S. was prepared to take military action if necessary even before a new government is formed.
"That's why, again, I reiterate, the president will not be hampered if he deems it necessary, if the formation is not complete," he said, referring to Iraqi efforts to form a government that bridges the deep divisions among the majority Shiites and minority Sunnis, Kurds and other groups.
Kerry stressed, however, that if military action is taken — President Barack Obama has said he is considering airstrikes — "it has nothing to do with support for a specific government."
"It's not specifically support for the existing prime minister or for one sect or another," Kerry said. "It will be against ISIL, because ISIL is a terrorist organization, and I think everybody today that we talked to understood the urgency."
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 al-Maliki's predicament. Their latest victories considerably expanded territory under their control just two weeks after the group started swallowing up chunks of northern Iraq, heightening pressure on al-Maliki to step aside.
Their offensive in the north and west takes the group closer to its dream of carving out an Islamic state straddling both Syria and Iraq. Controlling the borders with Syria will help it supply fellow fighters there with weaponry looted from Iraqi warehouses, boosting its ability to battle beleaguered Syrian government forces.
The creation of such a vast safe haven would serve as a magnet for jihadis from across the world, much like al-Qaida did in the 1990s in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Already, the Islamic State's battlefield successes in Syria and more recently in Iraq have sent tremors across the region, jolting neighboring countries into action over fears that the Sunni militants may set their sights on them next.
In Jordan, Iraq's neighbor to the west, the army dispatched reinforcements to its border with Iraq last week to boost security, while in Lebanon police busted a suspected sleeper cell allegedly linked to the Islamic State militants in raids on two hotels in central Beirut.
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