The closed-door meeting in Baghdad between Mr Kerry and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was not expected to have been friendly, given that officials in Washington had floated suggestions that the premier should resign as a necessary first step towards quelling the vicious uprising.
Nor is it likely to bring any immediate, tangible results, as Mr al-Maliki has shown no sign of leaving and Iraqi officials have long listened to — but ultimately ignored — US advice to avoid appearing controlled by the decade-old spectre of an American occupation in Baghdad.
But Mr Kerry appeared encouraged after the discussion, which ran for a little over 90 minutes.
Walking to his motorcade after the meeting, Mr Kerry said: “that was good”.
Mr Kerry also met with the influential Shi’ite cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and with parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq — the nation’s two highest-ranking Sunnis.
Iraqi officials briefed on Mr Kerry’s talks with the prime minister said Mr al-Maliki had urged the US to target the militants’ positions in Iraq and neighbouring Syria — training camps and convoys — with air strikes. The officials said Mr Kerry responded by saying a great deal of care and caution must be taken before attacks are launched to avoid civilian casualties that could create the impression that Americans were attacking Sunnis.
US President Barack Obama, in a round of television interviews that aired in the US yesterday said Mr al-Maliki and the Iraqi leadership faced a test as to whether “they are able to set aside their suspicions, their sectarian preferences for the good of the whole”.
The president added: “If they fail to do that, then no amount of military action by the United States can hold that country together.”
In Cairo, Egypt, yesterday, Mr Kerry said Iraq had reached a “critical moment” and urged leaders to rise above sectarian disputes to create a new government that gave more power to Sunnis and Kurds. Both groups — which together make up about 40% of Iraq’s population — accuse Mr al-Maliki of blocking them from holding equal authority in what is designed as a power-sharing government.
He was there in part to meet with Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to discuss a regional solution to end the bloodshed by the insurgent Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Mr 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 Mr al-Maliki’s predicament. Their latest victories considerably expanded territory under the militants’ control just two weeks after the al Qaeda breakaway group started swallowing up chunks of northern Iraq.
The offensive by ISIL 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.
If the Sunni insurgents succeed in their quest to secure an enclave, they could further unsettle the already volatile Middle East and serve as a magnet for jihadists worldwide.