PARIS (AP) — New US Secretary of State John Kerry says the time has passed for Syrian President Basher Assad to leave power.

His first official meetings with France’s leadership come amid increasing efforts by both countries to bolster Syria’s opposition. Kerry met Wednesday with French President Francois Hollande in Paris, chatting in French on the front steps of the Elysee Palace.

The war in Syria and Iran’s nuclear program have topped the agenda of Kerry’s tour of Europe and the Middle East. Officials in the United States and Europe said Tuesday the Obama administration is nearing a decision on whether to provide non-lethal assistance to carefully vetted fighters opposed to Assad.

“We are examining and developing ways to accelerate the political transition that the Syrian people want and deserve,” Kerry said.

Also on Wednesday, Iraq’s prime minister cautioned that a victory for rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian government will spark a sectarian war in Iraq and Lebanon that would create a new haven for al-Qaida, destabilizing the whole Middle East.

The candid warning from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, during an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, was his strongest statement yet about the instability that could follow the toppling of Assad.

It comes as his government confronts growing tensions of its own between Iraq’s Shiite majority and an increasingly restive Sunni minority, nearly a decade after the US-led invasion.

Fighting in Syria is increasingly taking on sectarian overtones, with predominantly Sunni rebels battling a regime mostly made up of Alawites, an offshoot Shiite group.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.