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More US troops to Iraq; special forces considered

Tuesday - 6/17/2014, 3:06am  ET

Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the Our Ocean conference, Monday, June 16, 2014, at the State Department in Washington. 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, Kerry said Monday. (AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke)

JULIE PACE
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- 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.

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