The United State is deploying up to 275 military troops to Iraq to protect the US Embassy and other American interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers as Iraq struggles to repel a rampant insurgency, officials say. The White House insisted anew the US would not be sending combat troops and thrusting America into a new Iraq war.
President Barack Obama, in a formal report to Congress, said the troops in the deployment he was announcing would be equipped for combat and would remain in Iraq until the security situation improved. About 160 troops were already in Iraq, including 50 Marines and more than 100 army soldiers. Some of those soldiers had only recently arrived.
Under the authorisation Obama outlined on Monday (Tuesday, NZT), a US official said, the US would put an additional 100 soldiers in a nearby third country where they would be held in reserve until needed.
Separately, US officials emphasised that a possible limited special forces mission - which has not yet been approved - would focus on training and advising beleaguered Iraqi troops, many of whom have fled their posts across the nation's north and west as the al Qaeda-inspired insurgency has advanced in the worst threat to the country since American troops left in 2011.
But the plan suggests a willingness by Obama to send Americans into a collapsing security situation, though explicitly ruling out putting US troops into direct combat in Iraq, and how far he might be willing to go to quell the brutal fighting in Iraq before it morphs into outright war.
On Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the US was willing to talk with Iran over ways the two long-time foes might help stop the insurgents known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). It was Washington's first explicit overture to the Islamic Republic to jointly work on threats that confront Iraq, although US officials quickly tamped down speculation that the discussion might include military co-ordination or consultation.
In an interview Monday with Yahoo! News, Kerry said the US would "not rule out anything that would be constructive" but stressed that any contacts with Iran would move "step-by-step".
The White House says the US military personnel are entering Iraq with the consent of that country's government.
Last Friday, Obama declared that "we will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq". But he said the White House was considering other options to support Iraqi security forces. Three US officials familiar with ongoing discussions on Monday said the potential of sending special forces to Iraq is high on a list of military options being considered.
It's not clear how quickly the special forces could arrive in Iraq. It's also unknown whether they would remain in Baghdad or be sent to the nation's north, where the Sunni Muslim insurgency has captured large swaths of territory collaring Baghdad, the capital of the Shiite-led government.
The mission almost certainly would be small: One US official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorised only as an advising and training mission - meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces that are fighting the insurgency but would not officially be considered as combat troops.
The troops would fall under the authority of the US ambassador in Baghdad and would not be authorised to engage in combat, another US official said. Their mission would be "non-operational training" of both regular and counter terrorism units, which the military has in the past interpreted to mean training on military bases, the official said.
However, all US troops are allowed to defend themselves in Iraq if they are under attack. Already, about 100 Marines and army soldiers have been sent to Baghdad to help with embassy security, according to a US official.
Obama made the end of the war in Iraq one of his signature campaign issues, and has touted the US military withdrawal in December 2011 as one of his top foreign policy successes. But he has been caught over the past week between Iraqi officials pleading for help - as well as Republicans blaming him for the loss of a decade's worth of gains in Iraq - and his anti-war Democratic political base, which is demanding that the US stay out of the fight.
While the White House continues to review its options, Iran's military leaders are starting to step into the beach.
The commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, General Ghasem Soleimani, was in Iraq on Monday and consulting with the government there on how to stave off insurgents' gains. Iraqi security officials said the US government was notified in advance of the visit by Soleimani, whose forces are a secretive branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard that in the past has organised Shiite militias to target US troops in Iraq and, more recently, was involved in helping Syria's President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.
In the short term, the US and Iran both want the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stabilised and the Sunni-led insurgency stopped. But in the long run, the United States would like to see an inclusive, representative democracy take hold in Iraq, while predominantly Shiite Iran is more focused on protecting Iraq's Shiite population and bolstering its own position as a regional power against powerful Sunni Arab states in the Gulf.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said any discussion with Iran would concern ways that Iran could help press al-Maliki's government to be more inclusive and treat all of Iraq's religious and ethnic groups equally.
Any talks with Iran "would be to discuss the political component here and our interest in encouraging Iraqi leaders to act in a responsible, nonsectarian way", she told reporters. "Certainly a discussion of that is something that we would be open to."