Kerry offered few details of his closed-door meetings in Baghdad. But he said each of the officials he met with — including al-Maliki — committed to the newly elected parliament holding its inaugural session by the end of June.
Iraq's constitution says parliament must convene by June 30, when lawmakers must elect a speaker, a position that has traditionally gone to a Sunni. The chamber will then have 30 days to elect a president — traditionally a Kurd — who will have 15 days to ask the leader of the majority in the 328-seat legislature to form a government. Then a prime minister will be picked.
Al-Maliki's coalition, State of the law, won 92 seats in the April 30 election, the most by any single group. While that would have normally placed him in a strong position to lead a coalition government, there is a growing consensus among his former Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni allies to deny him a third term because of what they see as his monopoly on decision-making, his perceived sectarian policies toward the Sunnis and Kurds, and the military setbacks of the past two weeks.
Kerry, echoing comments made by Obama last week, said no country — including the U.S. — should try to pick new leadership for Iraq. "That is up to the people of Iraq," he said. However, Iraqi officials briefed on the Kerry-al-Maliki talks say the pressure has increased on the prime minister to step down.
Al-Maliki, they said, urged the United States during his talks with Kerry to start airstrikes against the Sunni militants in territory under their control in the mostly Sunni north and west. Kerry's response was that the United States needed to move with extreme caution to avoid civilian casualties and not appear to be targeting Sunnis, they said.
Also during the meeting, according to the officials, the United States appeared to be linking any military action on guarantees that a genuinely inclusive government would come to office in Baghdad.
The officials agreed to discuss the substance of the talks only on condition of anonymity.
Obama, in a round of television interviews in the U.S., said al-Maliki and the Iraqi leadership face a test as to whether "they are able to set aside their suspicions, their sectarian preferences for the good of the whole."
"The one thing I do know is that if they fail to do that then no amount of military action by the United States can hold that country together," Obama said.
Al-Maliki's Shiite-led government long has faced criticism of discriminating against Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish populations. But it is his perceived marginalization of the once-dominant Sunnis that sparked violence reminiscent of Iraq's darkest years of sectarian warfare in 2006 and 2007.
In the latest evidence of the deadly turmoil roiling Iraq, suspected Sunni militants stormed the house of a government-backed Sunni militiaman, his wife, son, daughter, sister and a cousin in Tarmiyah, a town 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad, police and hospital officials said. The anti-al-Qaida militia, known as "Sahwa" or "Awakening," was set up by the Americans to fight al-Qaida in 2007.
The Iraqi government later took over the militias, incorporating many of them in the security forces. They have been revived to combat the re-emergence of the Sunni militants over the past year.
Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/larajakesAP
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