WASHINGTON/MOSUL, Iraq: The United States said it could launch airstrikes and act jointly with its archenemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has brought accusations of war crimes.
In the latest fighting Monday, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) took control of Tal Afar, a mainly Shiite Turkmen town between the rebel-held second city of Mosul and the Syrian border, officials and residents said.
ISIS fighters have been joined by armed Sunni groups who oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
The commander of Tehran’s elite Quds Force is helping Iraq’s military and Shiite militias gear up to fight ISIS, officials said Monday.
Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani 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.
Joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Iran’s 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if Washington could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive.”
As for airstrikes: “They’re not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” 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.”
The White House is considering sending a small number of American special forces soldiers to Iraq to help Baghdad, three U.S. officials said. President Barack Obama has explicitly ruled out deploying U.S. troops to Iraq for combat. But the plan suggests he is willing to put Americans into a collapsing security situation for training.
The U.S. officials said only up to about 100 special forces soldiers would deploy to advise Iraqi troops.
Washington has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create unity. In Baghdad, Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Stephen Beecroft met with Maliki, U.S. officials said. The meeting is part of a U.S. effort to prod Maliki to govern in a less sectarian manner.
But the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation than reconciliation. He was shown on television meeting military chiefs, vowing to crush the uprising and root out politicians and officers he blamed for betraying Mosul.
“We will work on purging Iraq of the traitors, politicians and those military men who were carrying out their orders,” he said.
ISIS fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks.
“It was a crazy battle, and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies,” said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby city of Fallujah.
The fighters captured the town of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq, solidifying their grip on the north.
“Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shiite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” an official said.
Local official Abdel-Abbas said Tal Afar was dealing with “martyrs, wounded, chaos and refugees,” and that around 200,000 people – nearly half the area’s population – had fled.
Iraq’s army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is home to a Shiite shrine. A convoy traveling to reinforce the troops there was ambushed late Sunday by Sunni fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.
An Iraqi army spokesman in Baghdad reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the opposing side had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.
An army helicopter was shot down during clashes with militants near Fallujah, killing both crewmen, officials said.
ISIS fighters’ sweep through the Tigris valley north of Baghdad included former dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit, where they captured and apparently massacred troops stationed at Speicher Air Base, once one of the main U.S. troop headquarters.
Pictures distributed on an ISIS Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting.
ISIS said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appear exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A former local official in Tikrit said ISIS had captured 450-500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere in the area. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding out in Speicher.
Shiites have rallied to defend the country, turning out in their thousands to join militias and the security forces after a mobilization call by the top Shiite religious scholar, Ali al-Sistani.
A leading Sunni preacher, Rifa al-Rifaie, said Sistani’s call amounted to sectarianism. Sistani is known as a moderate who never called his followers to arms during the U.S. occupation.
“Sistani, that lion, where was he when the Americans occupied Iraq?” He gave a list of grievances: “We have been treated unjustly, we have been attacked, our blood had been shed and our women have been raped.”