BAGHDAD: Shiite Iran offered Saturday to consider working with longtime foe the United States if it takes the lead in helping push back Sunni Arab militants, who have seized a swathe of northern Iraq.
The offer came as Iraqi commanders 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 top religious authority Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the besieged shrine city of Samarra north of the capital 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.
President Barack Obama said he was "looking at all the options" to halt the offensive that has brought jihadist-led militants within 50 miles (80 kilometres) of Baghdad city limits but ruled out any return of US combat troops.
"We will not be sending US troops back into combat in Iraq, but I have asked my national security team to prepare a range of other options that could help support Iraqi security forces," he said.
Obama has been under mounting fire from his Republican opponents over the swift collapse of the Iraqi security forces, which Washington spent billions of dollars training and equipping before pulling out its own troops in 2011.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who since taking office last August has overseen a rapprochement with a superpower 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," Rouhani told a press conference.
The Iraqi cabinet has granted the Shiite premier "unlimited powers" to reverse the lightning offensive, which has seen the militants sweep down towards Baghdad after overrunning second city Mosul Tuesday.
Troops and tribal militia found the burned bodies of 12 policemen as they recaptured the town of Ishaqi in Salaheddin province from Sunni Arab insurgents, a police colonel and a doctor said.
It was one of the closest points to the capital that the militants had reached in the offensive that saw them overrun a large chunk of northern and north-central Iraq this week.
Troops also retook the nearby Muatassam area of Salaheddin, the colonel said.
Friday night, police and residents expelled militants from another town in the province, Dhuluiyah, where they had set up checkpoints, witnesses said.
"Residents are now firing into the air" in celebration, witness Abu Abdullah told AFP.
Security forces have also held fast in the Muqdadiyah area of Diyala province, preventing militants from taking the town in heavy fighting, a police colonel said.
In Samarra, reinforcements were awaiting orders to launch a counter-offensive against areas north of the city, including Dur and Tikrit, seized by the militants earlier this week, an army colonel said.
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 Friday to join up to defend the country.
A representative of Sistani, who is adored by Shiites but rarely appears in public, made the call from the shrine city of Karbala, south of Baghdad.
Obama said that while the United States was willing to help out, Iraq needed to take steps to heal the deep divide between the Shiite-led government and the Sunni Arab minority, whose resentment has been exploited by the jihadists.
"The United States will not involve itself in military action in the absence of a political plan by the Iraqis that gives us some assurance that they're prepared to work together," Obama said.
"Any action that we may take to provide assistance to Iraqi security forces has to be joined by a serious and sincere effort by Iraq's leaders to set aside sectarian differences."
Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby declined to say what kind of response was being prepared.
He confirmed that the US aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and its strike group were in the region and ready to act. The US navy said the carrier group was in the Arabian Sea.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf dismissed criticism from Republican lawmakers that a residual US force would have stopped the Iraqi army from collapsing.
"When we left Iraq, after years of sacrifice and American taxpayer money, and certainly our troops felt that sacrifice more than anyone, the Iraqis had an opportunity," Harf told reporters.
Instead, Iraqi leaders "created a climate where there were vulnerabilities when it came to the cohesion of the Iraqi army," Harf said.