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U.S. weighs strikes on Iraq

by MATTHEW LEE AP Diplomatic Writer on June 16, 2014 10:35 AM

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, Secretary of State John Kerry said today.

Kerry also said in an interview with Yahoo! News that U.S. drone strikes “may well” be an option.

Kerry said Washington is “open to discussions” with Tehran if the Iranians can help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government. Asked about possible military cooperation with Iran, Kerry said he would “not rule out anything that would be constructive.” However, he stressed that any contacts with Iran would move “step-by-step.”

U.S. officials said earlier there is a possibility that Undersecretary of State William Burns may discuss Iraq with an Iranian delegation at nuclear talks in Vienna.

“We’re open to discussions if there is something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and ability of the government to reform,” Kerry said.

The Obama administration is also considering unilateral airstrikes to slow an al-Qaida-inspired insurgency that is threatening the government of President Nouri al-Maliki.

Kerry said today those are still an option.

“They are not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important to be able to stem the tide and stop the movement of people who are moving around in open convoys and trucks and terrorizing people,” 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 considerations come as Sunni militants captured a key northern Iraqi town along the highway to Syria early today, compounding the woes of Iraq’s Shiite-led government a week after it lost a vast swath of territory to the insurgents in the country’s north.

The town of Tal Afar, with a population of some 200,000 people, was taken just before dawn, Mayor Abdulal Abdoul told The Associated Press.

The town’s ethnic mix of mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkomen raises the grim specter of large-scale atrocities by Sunni militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, who already claim to have killed hundreds of Shiites in areas they captured last week.

A resident in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, confirmed the town’s fall and said over the telephone that militants in pickup trucks mounted with machine guns and flying black jihadi banners were roaming the streets as gunfire rang out.

The local security force left the town before dawn, said Hadeer al-Abadi, who spoke to the AP as he prepared to head out of town with his family. Local tribesmen who continued to fight later surrendered to the militants, he said.

“Residents are gripped by fear and most of them have already left the town for areas held by Kurdish security forces,” said al-Abadi.

Another resident, Haidar al-Taie, said an aircraft was dropping barrel bombs on militant positions inside the town this morning and that many Shiite families had left the town on Sunday, shortly after fighting broke out.

In the last week, Sunni militants took Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit in a lightening offensive that has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops. Over the weekend, militants posted graphic photos that appeared to show their gunmen massacring scores of captured Iraqi soldiers.

With Baghdad threatened by the militants’ advance, the State Department reinforced security at the U.S. Embassy and sent some personnel out of town.

Much of the embassy staff will stay in place, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement released Sunday. The statement did not say the number of personnel affected. The embassy, along the Tigris River in Baghdad’s Green Zone, has about 5,000 personnel and is the largest U.S. diplomatic post in the world.

Some embassy staff members were being temporarily moved elsewhere to more stable places at consulates in Basra, in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq, and Irbil, in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq, and to Jordan, she said.

U.S. travelers in the country were encouraged to exercise caution and limit travel to certain parts of Iraq.

Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement that a “small number” of military personnel are helping to keep State Department facilities in Baghdad safe. He said embassy personnel are being moved by commercial, charter and State Department aircraft, adding that the U.S. military has “airlift assets at the ready” should the State Department request them.

A U.S. military official said about 100 Marines and Army soldiers have been sent to Baghdad to help with embassy security.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush and the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde to the Persian Gulf as the president considers possible military options for Iraq. Kirby said the moves will give President Obama additional flexibility if military action were required to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq.

Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor, Kimberly Hefling in Washington and George Jahn in Vienna contributed to this report.

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