US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an aircraft carrier moved to the Persian Gulf yesterday, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option after insurgents overwhelmed a string of Iraqi cities last week and threatened Baghdad.
"The order will provide the commander-in-chief additional flexibility should military options be required to protect American lives, citizens and interests in Iraq," the Pentagon said.
The carrier USS George HW Bush, moving from the North Arabian Sea, will be accompanied by the guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea and the guided-missile destroyer USS Truxtun. The ships were expected to complete their transit into the Gulf yesterday.
The US moves came as Iranian President Hassan Rowhani said Iran may consider cooperating with the United States to help fight Sunni militants in Iraq but it had not yet been asked to intervene in the conflict.
Rowhani, who since taking office last August has overseen a rapprochement with the US, which Tehran long derided as the "Great Satan", said his government was prepared to consider offering help.
"If we see that the United States takes action against terrorist groups in Iraq, then one can think about it," Rowhani said during a press conference.
Iraqi commanders meanwhile said the army had recaptured two towns north of Baghdad as they prepared a fightback, bolstered by thousands of Shiite volunteers who have signed up in response to a call to arms by the country's top cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the besieged shrine city of Samarra north of the capital on Friday to rally troops and pray at the al-Askari mausoleum, a revered Shiite shrine whose 2006 bombing by al-Qaeda sparked sectarian conflict that killed tens of thousands.
Security forces have generally performed poorly, with some abandoning their vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms. But they have been bolstered by a flood of volunteers since Sistani urged Iraqis on Friday to help defend the country.