U.S. deploys small cadre of armed troops to Baghdad
WASHINGTON — The United States is urgently deploying several hundred armed troops in and around Iraq and considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers as Baghdad struggles to repel a rampant insurgency, even as the White House insists anew that America will not be dragged into another war.
President Obama notified Congress on Monday that up to 275 troops could be sent to Iraq to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the American Embassy in Baghdad. About 170 of those forces have arrived, and 100 other soldiers will be on standby in a nearby country until needed, an official said.
While Obama has vowed to keep U.S. forces out of combat in Iraq, he said in his notification to Congress that the personnel moving into the region are equipped for direct fighting.
Separately, three U.S. 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 nation's north and west as the al-Qaida-inspired insurgency has advanced in the worst threat to the country since American troops left in 2011.
The White House is wrestling with an array of options for helping Iraq repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency that has captured large swaths of territory collaring Baghdad, the capital of the Shiite-led government. In a rare move, U.S. officials reached out to Iran to discuss ways the longtime foes might help to stop the militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The conversations took place on the sidelines of separate nuclear negotiations taking place in Vienna. U.S. officials quickly tamped down speculation that the discussion might include military coordination or consultation, though Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News that the United States would “not rule out anything that would be constructive.”
Kerry stressed that any contacts with Iran would move “step-by-step.”
Taken together, the developments suggest a willingness by Obama to send Americans into a collapsing security situation in order to quell the brutal fighting in Iraq before it morphs into outright war.
The White House said the forces authorized for support and security will assist with the temporary relocation of some staff from the embassy in Baghdad. The forces are entering Iraq with the consent of that country's government, the White House said.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said the troops on standby could “provide airfield management, security and logistics support, if required.” They could work with embassy security teams or operate as a stand-alone force as directed.
Officials would not say where the soldiers would be on standby, but it is likely they would be in Kuwait, which was a major basing ground for U.S. troops during the Iraq war.
In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed control of the last major city that had been held by the government in northern Iraq.
The government denied that Tal Afar had fallen to ISIS, but that assertion was contradicted by hundreds of families who fled for safety to nearby areas controlled by Kurdish militias.
If confirmed, ISIS's capture of Tal Afar would allow the group to consolidate its control of a strategic supply corridor between its Syrian and Iraq strongholds.
It also would end, at least for now, any claim by the central government in Baghdad to authority in northern Iraq and would allow ISIS to claim for its nascent Islamist caliphate a contiguous territory that stretches from the Syrian city of Raqqa through Iraq's Nineveh province to the outskirts of Baghdad.
American officials with access to the latest intelligence on Iraq told Fox News it “appears likely/probable” that U.S.-made Stinger missiles have fallen into the hands of Sunni insurgents.
It is possible that the rebel fighters acquired them from army bases they have taken over in recent days, the sources said.
The Stinger missile is a shoulder-fired surface-to-air weapon that is used against aircraft.
The fall of Tal Afar would be freighted with historic import. American troops battled ISIS's early incarnation, al-Qaida in Iraq, for control of the city in 2005. At one time, the pacification of Tal Afar was considered a major triumph for U.S. forces.
The rebels have overrun a large swath of western and northern Iraq, which they are seeking to combine with areas they control in neighboring Syria. On Monday, an official in the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq told journalists that the jihadists had seized two major airports, three airstrips and 30 military bases, including four that American forces once used.
At the briefing, Jabar Yawar Manda, general secretary of the ministry of the peshmerga — or Kurdish military forces — used a laser pointer to draw broad circles over the center of a map of Iraq. The area is in the hands of ISIS and its allies, he said.
“All the airports are controlled by Daash,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS. “All the money is controlled by Daash. The weapons are all under their control — from the tanks to the AK-47s.”
West of Baghdad, an army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.
Meanwhile, U.S. and Iranian officials in Vienna discussed the crisis on the sidelines of separate negotiations about the Iranian nuclear program. Both sides ruled out military cooperation.
An American official said the talks did not include military coordination and would not make “strategic determinations” over the heads of Iraqis.
“Iran is a great country that can play a key role in restoring stability in Iraq and the region,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters. “Military cooperation was not discussed and is not an option.”
Any joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Shiite Iran's 1979 revolution, a sign of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.