BAGHDAD (AP) -- 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 advancing across the country, officials said Monday.
Washington signaled a new willingness work with Iran to help the Iraqi government stave off the insurgency after years of trying to limit Tehran's influence in Baghdad -- a dramatic shift that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago.
The United States is deploying up to 275 military troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other American interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers. But the White House insisted anew the U.S. would not be sending combat troops and thrusting America into a new Iraq war.
The insurgents seized the strategic city of Tal Afar near the Syrian border Monday, 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 two-man crew, security officials said.
The Quds Force commander, 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.
Soleimani's presence in Iraq is likely to fuel longtime Sunni suspicions about the Shiite-led government's close ties with Tehran.
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 vowed to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf in the worst threat to Iraq's stability since U.S. troops left in 2011. A call to arms Friday from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, gave prominence to 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 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.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Yahoo! News that Washington is "open to discussions" with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government.
A senior State Department official said the issue was briefly discussed with Iranian officials Monday on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna.
"We are open to engaging the Iranians, just as we are engaging other regional players," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The official said any engagement with Iran "will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq's future over the heads of the Iraqi people."