(CNN) -- Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani is willing to participate in the formation of a new government in Baghdad, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday.
On Monday, Barzani told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that he would press the issue of Kurdish independence with Kerry when the U.S. official visited Irbil, saying, "The Kurdish people should seize the opportunity now."
Kurds have complained that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government has marginalized them, a feeling shared by Iraq's Sunni Arab minority.
In his interview with CNN, Kerry said Iraqi leaders he has spoken with have "realized they cannot continue with this sectarian division" -- a realization that would presumably include a greater role for Kurds in governance.
"Words are cheap. I'm not taking anything I hear to the bank and saying, 'Wow, it's going to be solved,' " he said.
"But I'm hearing things that indicate to me that if they follow through on the things they're saying, there's a capacity to have a new government that could be a unity government, that could reflect a greater capacity for success."
The United States has sent military advisers to counsel Iraqi commanders on how best to take the fight to militants trying to create an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq.
U.S. officials also have promised what Kerry said Monday would be "sustained" and "intense" aid.
President Barack Obama is also weighing military intervention short of combat troops.
But forming a new Iraqi government is a crucial precursor to further U.S. intervention to stop the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, Kerry said.
"The key is, if you don't have a viable government, that is a unity government that is not going to repeat the mistakes of the last few years, whatever we might choose to do would be extraordinarily hampered," he said.
Kerry said failing to come up with a new political structure would make it "very difficult to be successful" with a military intervention.
Still, he noted, the President maintains the right to engage in such activity, with or without a political solution, if he decides that doing so is in the United States' interest.
"He reserves the right to use force if he has to," said Kerry, "if it's going to accomplish a goal."
He denied that Obama's decision not to launch airstrikes against Syria -- where ISIS has gained much of its strength -- or delays in making a decision about what to do in Iraq have made the crisis worse.
"... You've got to have a holistic, comprehensive approach, and the President is trying to figure out, as we are, I am, whether or not Iraq is prepared to be part of that," he said.
In the interview, Kerry defended Obama's decision not to go forward with military strikes in Syria.
"The reason that the decision to strike Syria didn't happen was because we ultimately came up with a better solution after the President made his decision to strike," Kerry said, referring to an agreement that required Bashar al-Assad's regime to give up its chemical weapons stockpile.
On Monday, the organization tasked with monitoring the weapons removal said the Syrian government had turned over all of its declared chemical weapons.
"That's a very significant accomplishment," said Kerry.
CNN's Jim Sciutto reported from Irbil, Iraq; Michael Pearson wrote from Atlanta.