WASHINGTON - The U.S. is urgently deploying several hundred armed troops in and around Iraq and considering sending an additional 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 Barack 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 already arrived and another 100 soldiers will be on standby in a nearby country until they are needed, a U.S. 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.
And 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 moves come at the White House wrestles 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 Monday to discuss ways the long-time foes might help stop the militants known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The conversations took place on the sidelines of separate nuclear negotiations taking place in Vienna, Austria. 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 U.S. 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 Baghdad embassy. 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.
If the U.S. were to deploy an additional team of special forces, the mission would almost certainly be small. One U.S. official said it could be up to 100 special forces soldiers. It also could be authorized 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 White House would not confirm that special operations forces were under consideration. But 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."
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 troops would fall under the authority of the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and would not be authorized to engage in combat, another U.S. 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 U.S. troops are allowed to defend themselves in Iraq if they are under attack.
The three U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the plans by name.
Obama made the end of the war in Iraq one of his signature campaign issues, and has touted the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, Gen. 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 U.S. 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 organized Shiite militias to target U.S. troops in Iraq and, more recently, was involved in helping Syria's President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.
In fighting on Monday, the insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, and an Iraqi army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah west of Baghdad, killing the two-man crew, security officials said.
In the short term, the U.S. and Iran both want the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki stabilized 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."