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Secretary of State John Kerry defends US policy in Mideast, says Washington fully 'engaged'

FILE - In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014, file photo, Secretary of State John Kerry gives the keynote address at the 2014 World Food Prize Laureate Announcement Ceremony, at the State Department in Washington. Kerry brushed aside criticism of Obama administration Middle East policy Thursday, June 19, 2014, taking exception to assertions Washington has been too passive in the face of surging terrorism in the region. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

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FILE - In this Wednesday, June 18, 2014, file photo, Secretary of State John Kerry gives the keynote address at the 2014 World Food Prize Laureate Announcement Ceremony, at the State Department in Washington. Kerry brushed aside criticism of Obama administration Middle East policy Thursday, June 19, 2014, taking exception to assertions Washington has been too passive in the face of surging terrorism in the region. (AP Photo/Molly Riley, File)

WASHINGTON - Secretary of State John Kerry brushed aside criticism of Obama administration Middle East policy Thursday, taking exception to assertions Washington has been too passive in the face of surging terrorism in the region.

Kerry noted the failure of the United States to secure a continuing military arrangement with Iraq's government after U.S. combat forces left. "We didn't have operational theatre capacity at the time" of the surge in violence spawned by al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State militants, he said in an interview on NBC.

On the broader issue of Mideast policy, Kerry said the administration has been "deeply engaged" in the region and is the largest source of humanitarian assistance. He said violence is on the rise in Iraq because Syria's Bashir Assad, who has been under siege for at least three years, "is a magnet for terrorists of all walks."

Asked about former Vice-President Dick Cheney's assertion that President Barack Obama has been wrong all along about the Mideast, Kerry replied, "This is a man who took us directly into Iraq. Please."

He reiterated that airstrikes have not been ruled out, saying that "nothing is off the table" in administration discussions.

Kerry didn't signal any details of involvement beyond what is already known, but did say that whatever assistance is forthcoming won't necessarily be aimed at bailing out embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The efforts will be "focused on the people of Iraq," he said.

Kerry said the militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is "more extreme than even al-Qaida and they are a threat to the United States and Western interests."

The former senator and Democratic presidential nominee he denied having suggested that Washington was considering working on this in co-ordination with Iran, saying "I don't know where this comes from."

"What we have said is that we are interested in communicating with Iran," he said, "so that Iran knows what we are thinking and we know what they are thinking."

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