JERUSALEM - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that America would support Iraq in its fight against al-Qaida-linked militants who have overrun two cities in the country's west, but said the U.S. wouldn't send troops, calling the battle "their fight."
Kerry made the comments as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia to discuss his effort to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He's had three days of lengthy meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kerry said some progress was made in what he described as " very serious, very intensive conversations," but key hurdles are yet to be overcome.
On Iraq, Kerry told reporters the U.S. was very concerned by the al-Qaida linked gunmen who have largely taken over Fallujah and Ramadi in an uprising that has been a blow to the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The two cities are in Anbar province, a vast desert area on the borders with Syria and Jordan that was the heartland of the Sunni insurgency that rose up against American troops and the Iraqi government after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Fallujah became notorious among Americans when insurgents in 2004 killed four American security contractors and hung their burned bodies from a bridge. Ramadi and other cities have remained battlegrounds as sectarian bloodshed has mounted, with Shiite militias killing Sunnis.
"We are very, very concerned about the efforts of al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, which is affiliated with al-Qaida, who are trying to assert their authority not just in Iraq, but in Syria," Kerry said before leaving to visit Jordan's King Abdullah II and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah . "These are the most dangerous players in that region. Their barbarism against the civilians in Ramadi and Fallujah and against Iraqi security forces is on display for everyone in the world to see."
He said the U.S. stands with the Iraqi government and others seeking to push back militants who are trying to destabilize the region and undermine a democratic process in Iraq. He said the U.S. was in contact with tribal leaders in Anbar who are standing up to the terrorists.
But he added: "This is a fight that belongs to the Iraqis. That is exactly what the president and the world decided some time ago when we left Iraq, so we are not obviously contemplating returning. We are not contemplating putting boots on the ground. This is their fight. ... We will help them in their fight, but this fight, in the end, they will have to win and I am confident they can."
On another issue roiling the Middle East, Kerry did not dismiss the idea that Iran could play a constructive role in finding a resolution to the civil war in Syria, even if Tehran is not a full participant in a conference on Syria later this month in Switzerland. The U.S. has objected to Iran's participation because it hasn't publicly endorsed the principles from the first Geneva peace conference on Syria in June 2012, calling for a transitional government in Syria, and is backing militias, including the Iranian-allied Lebanese Hezbollah group that has backed the troops of President Bashar Assad.
"If Iran doesn't support that, it's difficult to see how they are going to be a ministerial partner in the process," Kerry said.
"Now could they contribute from the sidelines? Are there ways for them, conceivably, to weigh in? ... It may be that there are ways that that could happen," Kerry said.
America's top diplomat arrived in the region on Thursday to try to keep Mideast peace talks on track amid sniping between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Now is not the time to get trapped in the sort of up and down of the day-to-day challenges," Kerry said before leaving for Jordan. "We don't have the luxury of dwelling on the obstacles that we all know could distract us from the goal. ... What we need to do is lift our sights and look ahead and keep in mind the vision of what can come if we can move forward."
Kerry is trying to nudge Abbas and Netanyahu closer to a peace pact that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The talks have entered an intense phase aimed at getting the two sides to agree on a framework and provide guidance toward a final settlement. Reaching a deal on that framework is not expected on this trip, Kerry's 10th to the region for peace talks.
"This is deeply steeped in history and each side has a narrative about their rights and their journey and the conflict itself," Kerry said. "In the end, all of these core issues fit together like a mosaic. It's a puzzle. ... I cannot tell you when the last pieces may decide to fall into place or may fall on the floor and leave the puzzle unfinished."