The United States urged Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE on Thursday to do what they can to encourage Iraq to form an inclusive government to tackle Islamist militant forces threatening to tear apart the country.
In a frenetic round of meetings in Paris, Secretary of State John Kerry briefed his counterparts about US intelligence-gathering on potential targets in Iraq aimed at beating back the insurgency, according to senior State Department officials.
He made clear Washington had not decided whether to launch air strikes "but reserves the right to do so," the officials told reporters, adding that none of the countries offered military assistance.
The foreign ministers of the three Arab states expressed concerns with the current Shi'ite Muslim-dominated leadership in Iraq, the officials said. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has long had chilly relations with Sunni Muslim-led Gulf states, which view him as too close to Shi'ite Iran.
"We share concerns and we are as focused as they are on making sure the next Iraqi government is inclusive and is formed in the near future," a US official said. "While there is no silver lining in a process like that, we do hope it infuses a sense of urgency into the process."
Amid the possibility of air strikes, Kerry briefed the ministers on his recent talks with Maliki in which he urged him to form an inclusive government bridging sectarian splits that have been exploited by Sunni Islamist insurgents.
"The move of ISIL concerns every single country here," Kerry told reporters, referring to the radical Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant militants who have overrun much of northern Iraq and seized control of its border with civil war-gripped Syria.
"In addition to that, we have an ongoing crisis in Syria, where ISIL is also involved," he said before the meeting at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Paris.
Kerry also discussed Syria and Iraq earlier with Lebanese former prime minister Saad al-Hariri and Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Lieberman spoke generally of the threat to all countries in the Middle East from Islamist militancy but there was no discussion about the possibility of Israel collaborating in the fight against ISIL, the officials said.
In new developments, Iraqi acting Vice President Khudair al-Khuzai, a close ally of Maliki, said parliament would convene on July 1 to start the process of forming a new government.
That move is likely to be welcomed by the United States. A broader government bringing together Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'ites as well as Kurds would offer more credibility in the fight against Sunni radicals, US officials say.
Kerry goes to Saudi Arabia on Friday for talks with King Abdullah on the crises in Iraq and Syria. The king ordered all necessary steps to protect Riyadh against potential "terrorist threats" after chairing a security meeting on the fall-out from Iraq, state news agency SPA said on Thursday.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have been alarmed by the success of ISIL after its jihadists captured swathes of northern Iraq alongside an amalgam of Sunni tribal and Islamist militias and members of the former ruling Baath party.
Riyadh has been at odds with its main Western ally over its Middle East policies since the 2011 start of Arab uprisings and was critical of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
"All of these issues are of immense importance for our countries," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters at the start of the meeting with Kerry. "I think with the cooperation between the countries we can affect, hopefully, the situation in the Middle East."
US officials said Kerry would discuss the risk of disruptions to global oil supplies from the Iraq crisis during his meetings in Paris and Jeddah. But an official said the topic was not raised in his Paris talks.
Brent crude held steady near $114 a barrel on Thursday as traders watched for possible oil bottlenecks. Iraq's southern oilfields, which yield most of the nation's 3.3 million barrels a day, remain safe although the conflict with ISIL has hit the Baiji refinery in the north.