Iraqi government troops held off Sunni insurgent attacks on a key town and an oil refinery Tuesday as Kerry pushed for unity in a conflict the UN says has killed nearly 1,100.
But those successes were marred when civilians were killed by air strikes aiming to push back Sunni Muslim insurgents, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), who have seized swathes of five provinces north and west of Baghdad.
The onslaught has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, alarmed world leaders and put Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki under pressure at home and abroad.
The first of up to 300 U.S. military advisers began their mission in Baghdad June 24 to help the Iraqi army, but the Pentagon said the American troops were not taking on a combat role.
The primary task of the advisers was to evaluate the state of the Iraqi forces and not to turn the tide against militants from ISIL, which have swept across western and northern Iraq, the Pentagon’s press secretary said.
“This isn’t about rushing to the rescue,” Rear Admiral John Kirby told reporters. However the U.S. is ready to carry out bombing raids if called upon, Kirby added.
He also said the United States had expanded its surveillance flights over Iraq, with manned and unmanned aircraft, and now was conducting 30 to 35 sorties a day.
Kerry huddled with European allies late June 24, ahead of the key NATO talks in Brussels, after a whirlwind visit to Iraq aimed at shoring up Iraqi unity.
Shortly after flying in on a U.S. military plane, Kerry met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton as well as other European partners and “discussed the grave security situation in Iraq,” a spokeswoman said. He also attended a dinner of foreign ministers from the 28-member alliance.
With crises boiling over in Ukraine and Syria, the Sunni jihadist offensive in northern Iraq has added new urgency to an already-packed NATO agenda, with ministers also due to discuss efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan.
“As everybody knows this is a very critical time for Iraq,” Kerry warned in Arbil earlier Tuesday as he met with Kurdish leaders to discuss the ISIL onslaught.
The militant offensive allowed Iraqi Kurds to take control of disputed territory they want to incorporate into their autonomous region over Baghdad’s strong objections.
The U.N. said June 24 at least 1,075 people were killed, an estimated three quarters of whom were civilians, and 658 wounded between June 5 and 22.
Kerry had met Maliki and other leaders in Baghdad June 23. He urged the speedy formation of a government following April elections in order to face down the insurgents.
Washington’s “support will be intense, sustained, and if Iraq’s leaders take the necessary steps to bring the country together, it will be effective,” Kerry said.
Kerry will June 26 hold back-to-back meetings with Gulf allies in Paris to brief them on his talks in Iraq and discuss the bloody three-year war in Syria.
He will meet Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, UAE top diplomat Abdullah bin Zayed and his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh, a second senior State Department official said.