NEW YORK — The United States and Iran signaled on Monday increased willingness to work together to arrest the expanding Sunni insurgency in Iraq, and US officials said the White House also is considering sending a small number of special forces troops to Iraq to help the government slow the insurgency.
Although President Obama has ruled out putting American troops into direct combat in Iraq, he notified Congress that the United States will deploy up to 275 troops to protect the US Embassy in Baghdad and other American interests, and may also send special forces.
About 170 of the security troops have already arrived and another 100 soldiers will be on standby, probably in Kuwait, until they are needed.
Three US officials said the potential of sending in special forces is high on a list of military options being considered, and the troops would focus on training and advising Iraqi forces, the Associated Press reported. It is not clear how quickly the troops could arrive in Iraq or whether they would stay in the capital or be sent north.
Militant fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border Monday, part of its goal of linking areas under its control on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier.
West of Baghdad, an Iraqi army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.
General Ghasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force — an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard— is in Iraq for consultations on how to roll back the ISIS, an Al Qaeda-breakaway group, according to Iraqi security officials.
Secretary of State John Kerry openly suggested Monday that a collaboration between the United States and Iran could be constructive, and another US official said the subject could come up at talks this week on the Iranian nuclear dispute.
Cooperation between the United States and Iran to contain the Iraqi crisis would represent the first time the two countries — estranged adversaries for more than three decades — have jointly undertaken a common security purpose since they shared military intelligence to counter the Taliban in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks 13 years ago.
Kerry, in an interview with Yahoo News, called the advance by insurgents under the ISIS banner during the past week an “existential threat” to Iraq and suggested US airstrikes were one possible answer.
Asked if the United States would cooperate with Iran to thwart the militants, Kerry said, “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”
Kerry said the United States is considering drone strikes in Iraq, along with possible airstrikes with fighter jets and Tomahawk missiles from American warships that have been deployed in the Persian Gulf off the Iraqi coast.
The Islamic State, which has taken control of key cities in northern Iraq, has vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala, and Najaf in the worst threat to the country’s stability since US troops left in 2011.
Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militias. He has visited Najaf and Karbala, Shi’ite holy cities south of Baghdad, and areas west of Baghdad where government forces have clashed with Islamic militants for months.
The capture of Tal Afar was an important strategic move for the militants because it sits on a main highway between Syria and Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which the Islamic State seized last week.
Iraqi officials said about 500 government troops and volunteers were flown Monday to Tal Afar and were preparing to try to retake the city.
Tal Afar, with a population of about 200,000, is about 260 miles northwest of Baghdad. Its residents are mostly ethnic Shi’ite and Sunni Turkomen, raising fears of atrocities by Islamic State fighters, who brand Shi’ites as heretics.
Tal Afar’s mayor, Abdulal Abdoul, said the city was taken just before dawn Monday, the Associated Press reported.
The city is just south of the self-rule Kurdish region and many residents were fleeing to the relatively safe territory, joining refugees from Mosul and other areas that have been captured by the militants. Some 3,000 others from Tal Afar fled west to the neighboring town of Sinjar.
A senior Obama administration official said that Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns may talk to the Iranians about Iraq at the nuclear talks, which are to reconvene Wednesday in Vienna.
In Iran, which is a strong backer of the Shi’ite government in Iraq, top officials also signaled readiness to collaborate with the United States on containing a crisis in a neighbor that the Iranian government has partly blamed on the legacy of the US military’s eight-year war that ousted Saddam Hussein.
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran has said he would welcome efforts by “all countries in combating terrorism.”
On Sunday, a key aide to Rouhani, Hamid Aboutalebi, wrote in a series of messages on his Persian Twitter account that only Iran and the United States are in a position to solve the Iraq crisis.
The conciliatory tone was noteworthy given that Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s choice to be Iran’s new UN ambassador, was rejected by the United States earlier this year because of his indirect role as a translator for the militants who seized the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, setting off the break in Iranian-US ties that has shaped the relationship ever since.
In the United States, the signs of US-Iranian cooperation on the Iraq crisis set off a new round of political debate over whether such a move was in Washington’s interest or a strategic mistake.
Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that has promoted diplomacy with Iran and a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute, welcomed such cooperation.
“The fact that Iran has signaled openness to US strikes in Iraq shows that, contrary to conventional wisdom in Washington, Iran is either not seeking hegemony in the region and/or is incapable of materializing such a desire,” Parsi said in an e-mail. “The scaremongering about Iran’s intents and capabilities are put in check by these recent events.”
Vocal US critics of Iran’s government, on the other hand, castigated the Obama administration for even considering a collaboration with Iran on the Iraq crisis, calling it a blunder that Iran would seek to exploit for its own ends in the nuclear talks.
Iran is negotiating with world powers, including the United States, which want guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful. A temporary accord in that dispute is set to expire on July 20.
“Iran helped turn both Syria and Iraq into a jihadist inferno, which threatens American security, and now is positioning itself as the firewall against the very violence it created,” said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based group that has advocated strong sanctions against Iran over the nuclear issue.
“The White House keeps granting Iran strategic openings that Tehran is converting into greater levels of negotiating leverage and nuclear intransigence,” Dubowitz said.