US sends 275 troops to Iraq as Barack Obama weighs options to stem jihadists
Several hundred American troops are being positioned in and around Iraq to help secure US assets as President Barack Obama nears a decision on an array of options for combating fast-moving Islamic insurgents, including air strikes or a contingent of special forces.
The US and Iran also held an initial discussion on how the long-time foes might cooperate to ease the threat from the al-Qaeda-linked militants that have swept through Iraq.
But the White House ruled out the possibility that Washington and Tehran might coordinate military operations in Iraq.
Obama met his national security team on Monday evening to discuss options for stopping the militant Sunni Muslim jihadists known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Officials said the president had made no final decisions, though the White House continued to emphasise that any military engagement remained contingent on the government in Baghdad making political reforms.
But Obama did notify Congress that up to 275 troops would be sent to Iraq to provide security for US personnel and the embassy in Baghdad. The soldiers - 170 of whom have already arrived in Iraq - were fully armed, though Obama has said he did not intend for them to engage in combat.
Separately, three US officials said the White House was considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers to Iraq.
Their limited 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 north and west as the insurgency advanced.
If the US were to deploy special forces, the mission would almost certainly be small. One official said it could be up to 100 soldiers.
It could also be authorised only as an advising and training mission - meaning the soldiers would work closely with Iraqi forces but would not officially be considered combat troops.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said that while Obama would not send troops back into combat, "he has asked his national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces".
The situation inside Iraq continued to deteriorate after signs emerged yesterday of a reprisal sectarian slaughter of Sunnis. Police said pro-government Shiite militiamen killed nearly four dozen detainees after insurgents tried to free them from a jail.
The Iraqi military insisted the Sunni inmates were killed when the attackers shelled the facility outside the city of Baquba. However, a local morgue official said many of the detainees had bullet wounds to the head and chest.
The crisis has sparked a rare alignment of interests between the US and Iran, which wants to preserve Iraq's Shiite-dominated government.
The US and Iran are engaged in nuclear negotiations and used a round of talks on Monday in Vienna to hold a separate bilateral discussion on Iraq.
In another sign of warming relations with the West, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the British embassy in Iran would be reopened, as jihadist gains in Iraq forced a reassessment of relations with Tehran.
He said the circumstances were right to restore the diplomatic mission after a significant thawing in relations in recent months.
Additional reporting by The Guardian