BAGHDAD — Sunni militants captured a strategic northern Iraqi city along the highway to Syria on Monday, sending thousands of residents from an ethnic minority fleeing for safety and moving closer to their goal of linking areas under their control on both sides of the border.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday that American drone strikes are an option in a bid to halt the dramatic sweep by insurgents over a swath of Iraq. He also said the Obama administration is willing to talk with Iran and does not rule out potential military cooperation between the two rivals to stop the rampage.
Already, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force, Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, is in Iraq, consulting with officials on how to roll back the al-Qaida-breakaway group leading the insurgent charge, known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Iraqi security officials said. They said the U.S. government was notified in advance of Soleimani's visit.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, also said that U.S. aircraft have in recent days flown reconnaissance missions over Iraq to gather intelligence on the militants' positions.
Soleimani has been inspecting Iraqi defenses and reviewing plans with top commanders and Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the visit. He set up an operations room to coordinate militias.
He also 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 threatened to march to Baghdad, Karbala and Najaf.
Soleimani is one of the most powerful figures in Iran's security establishment. 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 of deadly violence against U.S. troops in Iraq, according to American officials. More recently, it has been involved in helping Syria's President Bashar Assad in his fight against Sunni rebels.