Secretary of State John F. Kerry, on a Mideast mission to help stave off the unraveling of Iraq, said Sunday it was up to the Iraqi people to decide who should lead them – but pointedly noted wishes across the Iraqi political spectrum to "not continue the mistakes of the past."
The secretary, inaugurating his regional swing with a stop in Cairo, also sought to dampen Arab states' funding of opposition groups in Syria, pointing to the Iraq crisis as proof of the dangers of the spillover effect of the Syrian civil war.
In the Egyptian capital, the secretary met President Abdel Fattah Sisi for the first time since the former military chief took office two weeks ago. Kerry voiced support for greater personal freedoms for Egyptians, but also employed conciliatory rhetoric meant to repair a relationship soured by mistrust in nearly a year since Sisi led a military coup against his elected but widely reviled predecessor, Islamist Mohamed Morsi.
Sisi overwhelmingly won last month's presidential election with promises of an emphasis on security and repairing Egypt's battered economy.
The Obama administration has been critical of the sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that began with Morsi's ouster. Kerry's visit came one day after an Egyptian court upheld death sentences for 183 alleged backers of the movement, which has been declared a terrorist organization. The case was one of many instances of mass tribunals resulting in harsh penalties meted out to backers of the Islamist group.
But the firestorm in Iraq, where Sunni militants are seizing wide bands of territory in a bid to create an Islamic state spanning the Syrian border and beyond, heightens the strategic importance of a stable alliance between Washington and Cairo.
The Obama administration last year froze hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt, the second-largest recipient of American foreign assistance, but has been moving to restore much of it.
In Iraq, the U.S. has been trying to persuade hard-line Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to move swiftly to reverse exclusionary sectarian policies that have alienated the country's Sunni minority. But there is also widespread sentiment both inside and outside Iraq that Maliki is not the right person to lead the country out of the current crisis.
Kerry, at a news conference in Cairo, said Washington was not trying to orchestrate Maliki's ouster.
"Let me just say that the United States is not engaged in picking or choosing or advocating for one individual or series of individuals to assume the leadership of Iraq," he said. "That is up to the Iraqi people."
But he pointed to Kurds, Sunnis and even some fellow Shiites expressing dissatisfaction with Maliki's leadership, and stressed the need for a government in Baghdad that will "represent all the Iraqi people."