BAGHDAD — U.S. military advisers began moving into position here Monday, hours after Washington and Baghdad signed an immunity agreement, and Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States will protect its national security interests even if Iraqis cannot bridge their sectarian and political divides.
"If there is evidence that requires some kind of action" before Iraq forms a new government, President Barack Obama "maintains the prerogative of making that decision," Kerry said after talks here with Iraqi leaders.
As it prepares for possible U.S. air attacks against Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the administration has left open the door for strikes on both sides of the border.
Senior officials in Washington have refused to rule out strikes against ISIS forces in Syria as well as Iraq and have said that the administration's goal is to preserve some flexibility while awaiting assessments from the newly positioned U.S. military advisers.
ISIS forces captured a border crossing between Iraq and Jordan late Sunday, following their takeover of three more towns in western Iraq's Anbar province over the weekend. The militants have continued a rapid offensive that seeks to erase the border between Iraq and Syria and dissolve modern Iraq.
The Obama administration is committed under existing agreements to helping Iraq, Kerry said at a news conference after meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and leading Sunni and Kurdish officials.
But he repeated Obama's insistence that only the rapid resolution of Iraq's sectarian divide, with the formation of a new government, offers a chance of stability. "Iraq faces an existential threat, and Iraq's leaders have to meet that threat with the incredible urgency that it demands," Kerry said.
"The very future of Iraq depends on choices that will be made in the next days and weeks. And the future of Iraq depends primarily on the ability of Iraq's leaders to come together and take a united stand . . . not next week, not next month, but now."
In the meantime, he said, "President Obama has stated repeatedly that he will do what is necessary and what is in our national interest to confront (ISIS) and the threat that it poses to the security of the region and to our security in the long run."
"None of us should have to be reminded that a threat left unattended far beyond our shores can have grave, tragic consequences."
If Obama does move against ISIS, it will be in defense of American, regional and Iraqi interests and not in support of any individual Iraqi leader, Kerry said.
Iraq has had a caretaker government since parliamentary elections this spring. Kerry implored political leaders to quickly form a new government.
While the U.S. military has prepared airstrike options, those alternatives have not reached the operational planning stage. Instead, the administration is awaiting assessments from U.S. forces on the ground.
As the Iraq crisis began early this month, Obama authorized up to 275 U.S. troops to be sent to Baghdad to protect the U.S. Embassy and other installations, adding to several hundred troops already there. About 170 of those additional protective troops are now in place, operating under diplomatic immunity as part of the embassy.
The question of immunity for U.S. troops from Iraqi prosecution is a sensitive one. Iraqi refusal to grant immunity protection to American forces was the reason the United States withdrew all of its forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, instead of leaving a planned residual force of thousands of troops.
The immunity question was reopened when Obama announced last week that he would send up to 300 more U.S. advisers to aid the Iraqi military.
The first of the 300, two units of about a dozen soldiers each, were taken from the existing embassy defense group. The rest of the adviser troops are expected to arrive from outside Iraq in the coming days.
A joint command center is being established, Kerry said Monday, and U.S. assessments "will help define strategy on the security front."