Update 2:07 p.m.: Iran's general in Iraq, militants seize key city
In a sign of Iran's deepening involvement in the Iraqi crisis, the commander of Tehran's elite Quds Force is helping Iraq's military and Shiite militias gear up to fight the Sunni insurgents who have advanced across the country, officials said Monday.
Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani has been consulting in Iraq on how to roll back the al-Qaida-breakaway group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, according to Iraqi security officials.
In its latest success, the group Monday seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border, part of its goal of linking areas under its control on both sides of the Iraq-Syria frontier. West of Baghdad, an army helicopter was shot down during clashes near the city of Fallujah, killing the aircraft's two-man crew, security officials said.
Soleimani's presence is likely to fuel longtime Sunni suspicions about the Shiite-led government's close ties with Tehran.
In a further dramatic shift unthinkable only weeks ago, Washington says it is willing to talk with Tehran on turning back the insurgents' advance after years of trying to limit Iran's influence in Baghdad.
The security officials said the U.S. government was notified before Soleimani's visit.
Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said. He has set up an operations room to coordinate the militias and visited the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad, home to the most revered Shiite shrines, and areas west of Baghdad where government forces have faced off with Islamic militants for months.
The Islamic State has threatened to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf, and a call to arms Friday from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was mostly focused on the need to defend the holy shrines.
Soleimani's visit adds significantly to the sectarian slant of the mobilization by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Armed Shiite militiamen have been parading on the streets and volunteers joining the security forces are chanting Shiite religious slogans.
Al-Maliki rejects charges of sectarianism and points to recruiting efforts by some Sunni clerics, but there is no evidence of Sunnis joining the fight against the Islamic State in significant numbers, if at all.
The legitimacy accorded by his government to the Shiite militias poses a risk of Iraq sliding back into the deadly sectarian bloodshed of 2006 and 2007.
Such tensions were rising months before the Islamic State's lightning incursion of last week, with thousands killed since late last year. Bombings killed Shiites and members of the security forces as militants took hold of vast territory and at least one city in the mainly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad.
Soleimani is one of the most powerful figures in Iran's security establishment, and his Quds Force is a secretive branch of Iran's Revolutionary Guard involved in external operations. In the mid-2000s, it organized Shiite militias in a campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, according to American officials. More recently, it has been involved in helping Syrian President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.
His visit and the empowerment of the Shiite militias that his Quds Force trains and arms means Iran could take a role in Iraq similar to the one it plays in Syria. The Quds Force — along with Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite fighters — has been crucial to the survival of Assad, himself a member of a sect that is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
— Hamza Hendawi and Qassim Abdul-Zahra, AP
7:05 a.m.: US open to talks with Iran over Iraq, Kerry says
The Obama administration is willing to talk with Iran over deteriorating security conditions in Iraq and is not ruling out potential U.S.-Iranian military cooperation in stemming the advance of Sunni extremists, Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday.
Kerry also said in an interview with Yahoo! News that U.S. drone strikes "may well" be an option.
Kerry said Washington is "open to discussions" with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government. Asked about possible military cooperation with Iran, Kerry said he would "not rule out anything that would be constructive." However, he stressed that any contacts with Iran would move "step-by-step."
U.S. officials said earlier there is a possibility that Undersecretary of State William Burns may discuss Iraq with an Iranian delegation at nuclear talks in Vienna.
"We're open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform," Kerry said.
The Obama administration is also considering unilateral airstrikes to slow an al-Qaida-inspired insurgency that is threatening the government of President Nouri al-Maliki.
Kerry said Monday those are still an option.
"They are not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important to be able to stem the tide and stop the movement of people who are moving around in open convoys and trucks and terrorizing people," he said. "When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that and you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise."
In the last week, Sunni militants took Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in a lightening offensive that has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. Over the weekend, militants posted graphic photos that appeared to show their gunmen massacring scores of captured Iraqi soldiers.
With Baghdad threatened by the militants' advance, the State Department reinforced security at the U.S. Embassy and sent some personnel out of town.
Much of the embassy staff will stay in place, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement released Sunday. The statement did not say the number of personnel affected. The embassy, along the Tigris River in Baghdad's Green Zone, has about 5,000 personnel and is the largest U.S. diplomatic post in the world.
Some embassy staff members were being temporarily moved elsewhere to more stable places at consulates in Basra, in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq, and Irbil, in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq, and to Jordan, she said.
U.S. travelers in the country were encouraged to exercise caution and limit travel to certain parts of Iraq.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement that a "small number" of military personnel are helping to keep State Department facilities in Baghdad safe. He said embassy personnel are being moved by commercial, charter and State Department aircraft, adding that the U.S. military has "airlift assets at the ready" should the State Department request them.
A U.S. military official said about 100 Marines and Army soldiers have been sent to Baghdad to help with embassy security.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde to the Persian Gulf as the president considers possible military options for Iraq. Kirby said the moves will give Obama additional flexibility if military action were required to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Kimberly Hefling and Matthew Lee in Washington, George Jahn in Vienna and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.