Kerry in Baghdad Says Obama Gathering Data for Strikes

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in Baghdad today that President Barack Obama is gathering the information he’d need if he decides to order airstrikes to counter the advance of Sunni militants in Iraq.

“The president has moved the assets into place and has been gaining each day the assurances he needs with respect to potential targeting,” Kerry said.

Obama “has reserved the right to himself, as he should, to make a decision at any time” to undertake strikes, Kerry said at a press conference at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy in Baghdad. “We are implementing a strategy now; we are not waiting,” he said.

Administration officials said today that some military and political obstacles still remain in the path of renewed U.S. military action in Iraq more than two years after Obama withdrew the last U.S. combat forces from the country.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki hasn’t responded to American demands that he form a more inclusive government or step aside, and intelligence agencies are still trying to collect reliable targeting information that would enable manned or unmanned aircraft to hit fast-moving Islamic militants without endangering innocent civilians or government forces.

Kerry met for more than 90 minutes with Maliki, a Shiite who so far hasn’t moved to provide greater roles for minority Sunnis and Kurds.

‘Intense Support’

While Kerry pledged “intense, sustained” support from the U.S., he said the Iraqi government will win “the kind of embrace from the international community that it will need” only if it forms a unity government quickly.

Kerry, who flew into a Baghdad airbase on a C-17 military plane and then helicoptered into the city in a trip kept secret for security reasons, also met with Sunni and Shia politicians and said he emphasized to everyone the need for unity to oppose the militant forces of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

It’s “crystal clear ISIL’s rise puts more than one country at risk,” Kerry said. “ISIL threatens the stability of the entire region, and it’s a threat also to the United States and to the West.”

Obama has declined to express confidence in Maliki, as Sunnis, Kurds and some Shiites in Iraq have demanded that he step aside.

Maliki has pledged to start the process of forming a new government by July 1, Kerry said today, describing it as a critical step in helping the country repel the Sunni jihadists.

Approaching Deadline

July 1 is the deadline under the Iraqi constitution for Maliki to convene the newly elected parliament. After that, the parliament has 30 days to name a president, and then the president has 15 days to nominate a new prime minister. Four years ago, the process dragged on for eight months.

“The future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq’s leaders to come together and take a stand united against ISIL -- not next week, not next month, but now,” Kerry said.

ISIL, an al-Qaeda offshoot, has seized territory in Iraq’s north and west. Iraq’s army fought to regain control of border crossings with Jordan and Syria that the group took yesterday. The militants have gained in strength and numbers over the last two years fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Kerry is in the Middle East and Europe this week to discuss the regional instability triggered in the Mideast by Iraq and in Europe by Ukraine. He’s scheduled to fly to Brussels later this week for meetings with his counterparts in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Sunni Dictatorship

Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, was governed by its Sunni minority until the U.S. invasion of 2003 toppled the dictator Saddam Hussein. The current unrest risks a revival of the sectarian and ethnic civil war that broke out during the U.S. occupation.

While Obama said last week he would send as many as 300 special forces advisers to help Iraq’s military without engaging in ground combat, Defense Department officials had said that wouldn’t happen until U.S. and Iraqi officials reached a legal agreement to govern their presence in the country.

Today, Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said “Iraq has provided acceptable assurances on the issue of protections for these personnel via the exchange of diplomatic” notes. “With this agreement,” he said, “we will be able to start establishing the first few assessment teams.”

Advance Slowed

The Iraqi parliament’s refusal to agree to a “status of forces” agreement that would have protected U.S. troops from Iraqi prosecution led to the withdrawal of all American forces at the end of 2011.

ISIL’s advance toward Baghdad has slowed since the first days of its offensive, but the threat remains high, according to a U.S. official who wasn’t authorized to comment publicly.

The U.S. official said the ISIL offensive has left Iraqi political leaders extremely anxious, with some looking to the U.S. as if it could wave a magic wand to make the crisis go away, the official said.

Increased U.S. surveillance and intelligence-gathering is already providing better information to Iraq’s military in remote border regions, the official said, and the the U.S. will deliver additional supplies to the Iraqi government and military as early as June 25.

Although U.S. officials have said neighboring Iran shares an interest with the U.S. in preventing a civil war in Iraq, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said yesterday that he opposes U.S. intervention.

“The U.S. is not satisfied with the current process in Iraq, meaning the holding of elections and people’s good participation, because the U.S. wants Iraq to be controlled and for people who obey its orders to rule,” Khamenei said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

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