Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, arrived at the outskirts of Baghdad early Tuesday morning, less than two weeks after the Sunni extremists began their march across Iraq leaving in their wake a trail of occupied territory and posts abandoned by the Iraqi security forces.
American and Iranian officials, in a display of reluctant cooperation, met on the sidelines of the seven-party talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program on Monday, following through on Secretary of State John Kerry’s widely reported comments that the U.S. would be willing to work with the Iranian government to help slow ISIS’ momentum. Iran, largely Shiite, has reportedly already deployed Revolutionary Guard forces to Iraq in support of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s predominantly Shiite government.
Defense and State Department officials say such sideline discussions are not without precedent, and that the two nations have previously used the same venue to discuss security in Afghanistan. Iran and the U.S. severed official diplomatic ties after revolutionaries overran the American embassy in Tehran in 1979.
“The disastrous situation in Iraq was discussed today. No specific outcome was achieved," a senior official from the Iranian delegation told Reuters, regarding the talks over the deeply rooted sectarian violence in Iraq.
The final decisions will be made by Washington and Tehran, though military cooperation was not discussed and is not an option, the official said, echoing similar assertions from the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.
President Barack Obama informed Congress Monday night he had deployed 270 U.S. troops to Iraq to assist with securing the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. They will also “provide airfield management, security and logistics support, if necessary,” according to Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, and will remain there until the situation has calmed.
“All of these forces are trained to integrate with existing U.S. embassy security teams or operate as a stand alone force as directed,” Kirby said. “The presence of these additional forces will help enable the State Department to continue their critical diplomatic mission and work with Iraqis on challenges they are facing.”
Kirby declined Monday to discuss the specific kinds of troops the U.S. is deploying, but they are likely Marines and Army Special Forces, who train for these kinds of missions. Hundreds more Marines, along with heavy-lift helicopters and tilt-rotor Ospreys wait off the coast in the Persian Gulf aboard a growing number of U.S. military ships that have been sent to the region. The USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport ship, joined the USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier group on Monday.
The U.S. is also stepping up its use of aircraft designed for surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance, though Kirby also declined to offer specifics.
Obama met late Monday with his national security team to discuss options for Iraq, following pressure from some members of Congress to launch targeted airstrikes against the insurgent forces. However, unlike previous U.S. incursions into the region, the enemy here does not wear a uniform or even operate in fixed formations. Any military strike would have difficulty identifying and targeting the bands of fighters in an assortment of pickup trucks.
ISIS rebels, who seek to establish a Sunni caliphate that would span Iraq and Syria, have fought their way to within 40 miles of Baghdad as of early Tuesday morning. The BBC reports the nearby town of Baquba had been taken over by rebels, and 44 prisoners were killed during fighting at a police station there.
Residents of Baquba remain afraid of the continued onslaught, according to the BBC, though local Shiite militiamen have as of Tuesday morning countered ISIS’ attacks.
The growing wave of Islamic attacks began early last week when ISIS took control of the northern towns of Mosul and Tikrit, and continued to sweep toward the capital. Earlier this year, Islamic extremists also seized control of Ramadi and Fallujah, known for some of the bloodiest territory won by U.S. forces during the Iraq War.
Officials in the Defense and State Departments have expressed their disappointment in the performance of the Iraqi military, which reportedly has abandoned some of its posts as the ISIS rebels advanced on Baghdad. Iraqi troops engaged ISIS fighters in the strategic city of Tal Afar near Mosul, the BBC reports. to the west of Baghdad in Fallujah, it appears the Sunni militants were able to shoot down a government helicopter and destroyed several tanks.