Kerry In Iraq To Pressure Al-Maliki To Reach Across Sectarian Lines

As Sunni Militants continue to grab territory across Northern Iraq, the U.S. has been pressuring Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish communities.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. As extremist Sunni militants continue to grab territory across Northern Iraq, the U.S. has been pressuring Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to reach out to the Sunni and Kurdish communities. This morning, Secretary of State John Kerry is in Baghdad on an unannounced visit to lean on Maliki personally. Makiki's largely Shia government is blamed by many for inflaming the sectarian divide in Iraq. NPR's Jackie Northam is traveling with Kerry. She joins us now from Baghdad. Good morning.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What does Kerry hope to achieve in this meeting with Maliki?

NORTHAM: Renee, Kerry is here on just a one-day visit and in large part, is to sit face-to-face with Prime Minister Maliki and try to gauge what his intentions are, what he's thinking about the immediate future and what his plans are to help tackle the problem with Sunni extremists - ISIS. But Kerry will also drive home the message to Maliki that the U.S. needs to see him make some serious changes as to how he runs the country if he wants help from Washington.

The Obama administration has been hard pressing the Iraqi leader to create a more-inclusive government. It's felt, as you said, that Maliki's marginalization of Iraq's Kurdish and Sunni communities has helped spawn the violence that we're seeing now in the North of the country and the West. And Washington has made any sort of military support contingent on whether there's a good sign from Maliki that he's willing to be more inclusive.

But, you know, that sign hasn't come up till now, and now we're hearing growing calls for him to go. And in fact, yesterday in Cairo, Kerry went further than he has before. And without mentioning Maliki's name, he said that the U.S. would like to see Iraqis find leadership that will represent all the people of Iraq.

MONTAGNE: Has Kerry given any sense of who the U.S. would like to see replace Maliki if he did in fact step aside?

NORTHAM: Secretary Kerry, like President Obama, has said it's up to the Iraqis themselves to decide who they want to lead this country. The fact of the matter is Maliki won the most votes in the election in April, but he has not got enough seats to form a government. So things are at a standstill. Senior state department officials told us yesterday evening when we were in Oman, that at this point, there has been a major increase of intelligence collection by the U.S. including these border regions where ISIS has been consolidating power. And, you know, the officials said the situation in the border region is very serious.

MONTAGNE: Jackie, you just mentioned that Secretary Kerry had been in Cairo. Where else besides Cairo and Iraq is Kerry stopping on this trip and why?

NORTHAM: He's going to Paris later this week to meet with Arab leaders and - mostly from the Gulf states including Saudi Arabia. And he's been working the phones with Arab leaders as well. Kerry is presenting the threat by ISIS, the Sunni extremist group taking over large parts of North Iraq, as an existential threat. All the countries in the region really should be concerned about a spillover effect that the whole stability of the region is at risk.

And during his talks with the Arab leaders, Kerry is urging them to use their influence on Maliki to be either more inclusive and bring others into his government or step aside. But we have to remember on Sunday, Iran's leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Iran will back Maliki. And Iran has enormous influence here in Iraq and has found Maliki over the years to be a fairly good partner. So that's going to give Maliki some leverage in his meeting with Secretary Kerry today.

MONTAGNE: Very complicated indeed. Thank you very much, Jackie.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That is NPR's Jackie Northam in Baghdad. She's traveling with Secretary of State John Kerry all this week in the Middle East.

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