BAGHDAD - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Mideast nations on Wednesday against taking new military action in Iraq that might heighten sectarian divisions, as reports surfaced that Syria launched airstrikes across the border and Iran flew surveillance drones over the neighboring country.
A senior Iraqi military official confirmed that Syrian warplanes bombed militants' positions Tuesday in and near the border crossing in the town of Qaim. He said Iraq's other neighbors - Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - were all bolstering flights just inside their airspace to monitor the situation. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
American officials said the strikes appeared to be the work of Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. They said the target was the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a Sunni extremist group that seeks to carve out a purist Islamic enclave across both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.
"We've made it clear to everyone in the region that we don't need anything to take place that might exacerbate that sectarian divisions that are already at a heightened level of tension," Kerry said, speaking at a meeting of diplomats from NATO nations. "It's already important that nothing take place that contributes to the extremism or could act as a flash point with respects to the sectarian divide."
Kerry said Baghdad needs to take steps to ensure that Iraq's military can defend the country without relying on outside forces. The U.S. is sending 300 military advisers.
Nevertheless, the involvement of Syria and Iran in Iraq suggests a developing Shiite axis among the three governments in response to the raging Sunni insurgency. And in an unusual twist, the U.S., Iran and Syria now find themselves with overlapping interests in stabilizing Iraq's government.
U.S. officials believe the leadership in Baghdad should seek to draw Sunni support away from the militants led by the Islamic State. The insurgency has drawn support from disaffected Iraqi Sunnis who are angry over perceived mistreatment and random detentions by the Shiite-led government.
Kerry said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be standing by his commitment to start building a new government that fully represents its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish population. But he said the U.S. is watching closely to make sure any new political process does not repeat past mistakes of excluding Iraq's minorities.
On Wednesday, al-Maliki rejected calls for an interim "national salvation government" in his first public statement since President Barack Obama challenged him last week to create a more inclusive leadership or risk a sectarian civil war.
Several politicians, including Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has been named as a possible contender to replace al-Maliki, have called on him to step down and form an interim government that could provide leadership until a more permanent solution can be found.
Al-Maliki, however, insisted the political process must be allowed to proceed following recent national elections in which his bloc won the largest share of parliament seats.
"The call to form a national salvation government represents a coup against the constitution and the political process," he said. He added that "rebels against the constitution" - a thinly veiled reference to Sunni rivals - posed a more serious danger to Iraq than the militants.
He called on "political forces" to close ranks in the face of the growing threat by insurgents, but took no concrete steps to meet U.S. demands for greater inclusion of minority Sunnis.
Al-Maliki's coalition, the State of the Law, won the 92 seats of the 328-member parliament in the election. In office since 2006, al-Maliki needs the support of a simple majority to hold on to the job for another four-year term. The legislature is expected to meet before the end of the month, when it will elect a speaker. It has 30 days to elect a new president, who in turn will select the leader of the majority bloc in parliament to form the next government.
Qaim, where the Syrian airstrikes took place, is located in the vast and mostly Sunni Anbar province. Its provincial government spokesman, Dhari al-Rishawi, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that 17 people were killed in an air raid there.
The White House said intervention by Syria was not the way to stem the insurgents, who have taken control of several cities in northern and western Iraq.
"The solution to the threat confronting Iraq is not the intervention of the Assad regime, which allowed ISIL to thrive in the first place," said Bernadette Meehan, a National Security Council spokeswoman. "The solution to Iraq's security challenge does not involve militias or the murderous Assad regime, but the strengthening of the Iraqi security forces to combat threats."
Underling the persistent danger of Iraq being swept up again by sectarian bloodletting, a suicide bomber blew himself up at an outdoor market south of Baghdad on Wednesday, killing 15 people and wounding 30, police and hospital officials said.
They said the attack took place around sunset in the Shiite majority area of Mahmoudiya area, 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of the capital. No one claimed responsibility for the attack but it bore the hallmarks of Sunni militants who have for years targeted security forces and Shiite civilians.
Earlier Wednesday, Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a key Iraqi oil refinery they have been trying to take for days, but security forces fought them back, said Col. Ali al-Quraishi, the commander of the Iraqi forces on the scene.
A mortar shell also smashed into a house in Jalula, northeast of Baghdad, killing a woman and her two children. That town in the turbulent Diyala province is under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga.
Also, a report by Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said an attack near Iran's western border with Iraq has killed three Iranian border guards. They were killed Tuesday night while patrolling along the border in western Kermanshah province. A border outpost commander was among the three killed, Fars quoted a local security official, Shahriar Heidari, as saying.
Heidari said an unspecified "terrorist group" was behind the attack but provided no details.
A U.S. official said Wednesday that Iran has been flying surveillance drones in Iraq.
American and Iranian officials have had some direct discussions on the matter, though the Obama administration has ruled out the prospect of direct military involvement. The U.S. is also conducting aerial surveillance over Iraq.
The U.S. officials spoke only on grounds of anonymity because they weren't authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
In the face of militant advances that have virtually erased Iraq's western border with Syria and captured territory on the frontier with Jordan, al-Maliki's focus has been the defense of Baghdad, a majority Shiite city of 7 million fraught with growing tension. The city's Shiites fear they could be massacred and the revered al-Kazimiyah shrine destroyed if Islamic State fighters capture Baghdad. Sunni residents also fear the extremists, as well as Shiite militiamen in the city, who they worry could turn against them.
The militants have vowed to march to Baghdad and the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, a threat that prompted the nation's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, to issue an urgent call to arms that has resonated with young Shiite men.
Al-Maliki, who has no military background but gets the final say on major battlefield decisions, has looked to hundreds of thousands of Shiite volunteers who joined the security forces as the best hope to repel the Islamic State's offensive.
While giving the conflict a sectarian slant - the overwhelming majority are Shiites - the volunteers have also been a logistical headache as the army tries to clothe, feed and arm them. Furthermore, their inexperience means they will not be combat ready for weeks, even months.
Still, some were sent straight to battle, with disastrous consequences.
New details about the fight for Tal Afar - the first attempt to retake a major city from the insurgents - underscore the challenges facing the Iraqi security forces.
Dozens of young volunteers disembarked last week at an airstrip near the isolated northern city and headed straight to battle, led by an army unit. The volunteers and the accompanying troops initially staved off advances by the militants, but were soon beaten back, according to military officials.
They took refuge in the airstrip, but the militants shelled the facility so heavily the army unit pulled out, leaving 150 panicking volunteers to fend for themselves, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The ill-fated expedition - at least 30 volunteers and troops were killed and the rest of the recruits remain stranded at the airstrip - does not bode well for al-Maliki's declared plan to make them the backbone of Iraq's future army.