(USATODAY.com) - Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad on Monday where he became the highest ranking U.S. official to visit Iraq since an insurgency has threatened to plunge the nation into civil war.
Kerry scheduled meetings with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and top Sunni and Kurdish leaders in a bid to push for a power-sharing arrangement.
Iraqinews.com reported that the meeting with al-Maliki lasted one hour and 40 minutes, after which Kerry was escorted to his car by Iraq Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari -- a Kurd. As Kerry got in, he said: "That was good."
The National Iraqi News Agency reported only that "Maliki discussed with Kerry security and political developments in Iraq."
A senior U.S. State Department official, speaking on background before the talks, said elections results certified last week should provide al-Maliki and the other leaders an opportunity to form a more inclusive government.
Kerry, a day earlier in Cairo, called on Iraq's leaders to "rise above sectarian motivations and form a government that is united in its determination to meet the needs and speak to the demands of all of their people."
Added Kerry: "No country is safe from that kind of spread of terror, and none of us can afford to leave that entity with a safe haven which would become a base for terror against anyone and all, not only in the region but outside of the region as well," Kerry said in Cairo.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — known as ISIL or ISIS — captured more territory, including a key Syrian border crossing, over the weekend. The al-Qaeda splinter group wants to create an Islamic state spanning Syria and Iraq. The Syrian crossing is particularly problematic as it will allow easier transport of fighters, weaponry and equipment in and out of Syria.
Prime Minister al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is under pressure now to be more inclusive of Sunnis, who have long complained of being disadvantaged in the country. Even so, thousands of volunteers and recruits marched in the capital and other Shiite-dominated cities over the weekend in a show of force intended to boost morale but made minority groups even more nervous.
Kerry's arrival in Iraq comes as the White House continues to keep to its stated line that it will not recommit U.S. troops to the country on a large scale.
Speaking about ISIL on Sunday, President Obama said: "What we can't do is think that we're just going to play whack-a-mole and send U.S. troops occupying various countries wherever these organizations pop up. We're going to have to have a more focused, more targeted strategy."
Contributing: Associated Press