President Obama notified Congress on Monday that about 275 U.S. military personnel are deploying to Iraq to provide support and security for U.S. personnel and the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
Obama also said the troops are equipped for combat and will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that they are no longer needed. These forces are entering Iraq with the consent of the government there, White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
He said the report to Congress is consistent with the War Powers Resolution.
The move comes after Secretary of State John Kerry earlier in the day said the United States is willing to talk with Iran to stem advancing Sunni extremists in Iraq, and he would not rule out possible military cooperation with the longtime enemy.
But the Pentagon quickly tamped down the prospect of consulting with Iran on any potential military intervention. "We are not planning to engage with Iran on military activities inside Iraq," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
Kerry, in an interview with Yahoo News, said, "I think we are open to any constructive process here that could minimize the violence, hold Iraq together ... and eliminate the presence of outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart." He said President Obama was vetting "every option that is available," including drone strikes.
Asked about possible military cooperation with Iran, Kerry said, "We need to go step-by-step and see what in fact might be a reality. But I would not rule out anything that would be constructive in providing real stability," he said. "We are open to any constructive process here that would minimize the violence."
U.S. and Iranian officials did talk briefly Monday on the sidelines of nuclear negotiations going on this week in Vienna.
White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said Monday that no combat troops would be sent to Iraq, but the U.S. is looking at other options.
About 100 Marines and Army soldiers have been sent to Baghdad to help with security at the U.S. Embassy. Some embassy staff were being relocated in the region, but the embassy was remaining fully operational.
As Kerry made his comments Monday, a battle still raged for the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, population 200,000, which fell to the Islamic militants.
"We are still controlling the center of the city, and we will defeat the terrorists — we just received new reinforcements," said Gen. Qassim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman who confirmed that the insurgents made gains in certain neighborhoods.
Resident Husien Ebrahim said he was leaving the city out of fear. "I am taking my family out of the city — my kids didn't sleep all night," Ebrahim said. "They haven't stop shooting on the city with heavy guns. I am heading to a friend in the Kurdish-controlled town (of) Sinjar to provide safe shelter for my family."
Ebrahim added that he would come back to fight the insurgents known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Levant is a traditional name for the region including Iraq and greater Syria.
"Fighting is the only choice," Ebrahim said. "They think we are infidels being Shiite, and they have no mercy. They would slaughter us with our kids, so we have to fight until the end."
Many of the town's inhabitants have fled and are in the desert, with some managing to reach Sinjar, a Kurdish town near the Syrian border, said Arshad al-Salihi, president of Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political group, at a news conference in Kirkuk.
The fighting in Tal Afar comes a week after ISIL — also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. Tal Afar is 93 miles from Syria's border, where ISIL is battling Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and controls territory next to the Iraqi border.
Meanwhile, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, is in Iraq to consult with officials on how to rollback ISIL's charge, the Associated Press reported, citing unnamed Iraqi security officials. AP said the U.S. government was notified in advance of Soleimani's visit.
President Obama has urged Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, to accept political changes that would promote greater democracy in Iraq, bring Sunnis back into the government and address grievances that underlie the Sunni offensive.
Despite recent gains, the Sunni insurgents are not likely strong enough to take over Iraq's Shiite south, said Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operations officer who now works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
"Iraq's military has more than enough in its home terrain to prevent Sunni militants to make inroads," Gerecht said.
And the Sunni militants, traveling in columns of white pickup trucks, would be easy targets for Iran's air force, should it opt to provide such assistance to Iraq, he said.
Meanwhile, Iraqis living in Baghdad — scared of the widening conflict — are trying to flee the capital to the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil, the fourth-largest city in Iraq, is considered a safe haven and has so far managed to avoid the deadly advance into Iraq by ISIL.
"It is the same in Baghdad; many people want to book a ticket to come to Erbil," said Benjamin Adam in Erbil. "But all tickets have been sold. People cannot travel by car. There are two or three daily flights from Baghdad to Erbil, and all of them are full."