U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday pledged "intense" support for Iraq against the "existential threat" posed by a major militant offensive pushing toward Baghdad from the north and west.
Kerry pressured Iraq's top Shi'ite leaders on Monday to create a more inclusive government in order to face down the insurgents, who have captured vast territories in northern and western Iraq.
The United States' "support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq's leaders take the steps needed to bring the country together, it will be effective," Kerry told journalists in Baghdad.
“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,” he said.
He said ISIL's "campaign of terror, their grotesque acts of violence and repressive ideology pose a grave danger to Iraq's future. ISIL is not, as it claims, fighting on behalf of Sunnis. ISIL is not fighting for a stronger Iraq. Quite the contrary, ISIL is fighting to divide Iraq and to destroy Iraq. So, this is a critical moment for Iraq's future."
The danger to Iraq, he said, is dire.
"It is a moment of decision for Iraq's leaders," he said. "Iraq faces an existential threat and Iraq's leaders have to meet that threat."
Al-Maliki under pressure
The top U.S. diplomat made an unannounced trip to Baghdad and met for more than an hour and a half with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and also with a key Shi'ite cleric and the two highest-ranking Sunni lawmakers.
As he walked to his motorcade after meeting the Iraqi leader, Kerry said, "That was good." But details of the meeting were not disclosed.
The prime minister's office said that al-Maliki also emphasized to Kerry that the advance of the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) "represents a threat not only to Iraq but to regional and international peace."
The Iraqi leader called for U.S. airstrikes against the insurgents, which the U.S. is considering but has not agreed to.
Al-Maliki has come under increasing political pressure from both Sunni and Shi'ite critics to step down. Neighboring Iran, however, has shown no sign of dropping support for him and he insists that he will work to form a new government by a July 1 constitutional deadline.
Departing Sunni Parliament Speaker Osama Nujeifi, who has been pushing for al-Maliki to step down, says the insurgency needs to be “confronted through direct military operations,” as well a political reforms to “inject a new hope into our own people, so that they can support the political process and the unity of Iraq.”
Many Sunnis, upset over being politically marginalized by the Shi'a-dominated government in recent years, have been joining ISIL militants.
Nujeifi, with whom Secretary Kerry spoke, says ISIL militants “pose a threat to the entire world.”
Nujeifi's brother Athil is the governor of Mosul, which the militants overran last week.
Pressure on Iraq
Kerry also discussed Iraq and the threat posed by ISIL on Sunday, as he met with his counterparts in Egypt and Jordan.
Washington wants Arab states to bring pressure on Iraq's leaders to speed up government formation, which has made little headway since April elections, and has tried to convince them ISIL poses as much of a threat to them as to Iraq.
Kerry warned all countries, particularly in the Gulf, that "there is no safety margin whatsoever in funding a group like ISIL."
He said the group “should not be allowed to have any safe haven.”
The group has commandeered an enormous quantity of cash and resources as a result of the advance, bolstering coffers that were already the envy of militant groups around the world, the French news agency AFP reported.
U.S. leaders have stopped short of calling for Maliki to step down, but there is little doubt that they feel he has squandered the opportunity to rebuild Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew in 2011.
"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.
Iraqi troops struggle
Iraqi security forces are struggling to hold their ground in the face of an insurgent onslaught that has seized major areas of five provinces, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and sparked fears the country could be torn apart.
Al-Maliki's security spokesman said Monday "hundreds" of soldiers had been killed since ISIL launched its offensive on June 9.
The announcement on television by Lt. Gen. Qassem Atta is the most specific information provided so far by the government on losses sustained by the security forces.
Iraqi security forces have showed little resistance to the onslaught of the militants, often fleeing their positions in northern and western Iraq and abandoning their weapons.
The ISIL fighters have threatened to attack Baghdad, but a senior U.S. State Department official said Monday that the U.S. believes their advance toward the capital has been slowed.
The U.S. is sending 300 military advisers to Baghdad, but has ruled out the return of combat troops.
U.S. President Barack Obama warned that the insurgents' strength could grow and destabilize other countries in the region, but he said the U.S. would not "play Whac-A-Mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up."
On Sunday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei objected to any U.S. intervention in Iraq, saying that the Baghdad government was capable on its own of ending the conflict with the insurgents.
Militants seize border crossings
The militants are continuing their charge, overrunning the Al-Waleed border crossing with Syria, officers said on Monday, AFP reported.
The capture of the post means all official crossings with Iraq's neighbor to the west are outside government control, and increases the militants' ability to bring men and materiel across the border from Syria, AFP said.
Sunni tribes took control of two border crossings on Sunday - one with Syria and another with Jordan - after Iraq's army pulled out of the area following a clash with rebels, Iraqi and Jordanian intelligence sources said.
The militants have also taken control of four towns in Iraq's western Anbar province since Friday.
The move came after Sunni militants overran posts further north along Iraq's border with Syria, pursuing their goal to form a “caliphate” straddling both countries that has raised alarm across the Middle East and in the West.
It was not immediately clear if the tribesmen's seizure of the Iraqi-Jordanian Turaibil crossing was part of the broader ISIL advance, which has also helped the militant group secure supply lines.
Jordanian army sources said their troops had been on a state of alert along the 112-mile border with Iraq for several days, to ward off “any potential or perceived security threats.”
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei objected Sunday to any U.S. intervention in Iraq, saying that the Baghdad government was capable on its own of ending the conflict with the insurgents.
After his stop in Iraq, Kerry is due to travel to Brussels for a meeting of NATO foreign ministers, and State Department officials say they expect to have sideline discussions there with European partners about the situation in Iraq.
VOA's Edward Yeranian in Cairo contributed to this report. Some information was provided by Reuters and AFP.