WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama considered options for military action to support Iraq's besieged government on Monday, and US and Iranian officials held talks to stabilize the region, which has been roiled by the advance of Sunni rebels toward Baghdad.
Obama, who discussed the crisis with his top national security advisers on Monday evening, has made US action contingent on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's taking steps to broaden his Shi'ite-dominated government.
"The President will continue to consult with his national security team in the days to come," the White House said, without elaborating. Among those attending the meeting were Secretary of State John Kerry, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel, CIA Director John Brennan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.
The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups that oppose what they say is oppression by Maliki. The UN human rights chief said forces allied with ISIL had almost certainly committed war crimes by executing hundreds of non-combatant men in Iraq over the past five days.
US and Iranian officials discussed the crisis in Vienna on the sidelines of separate negotiations about the Iranian nuclear programme, the two sides each said. Both ruled out military cooperation.
A US official said the talks did not include military coordination and would not make "strategic determinations" over the heads of Iraqis.
"Iran is a great country that can play a key role in restoring stability in Iraq and the region," a senior Iranian official told Reuters. But he added: "Military cooperation was not discussed and is not an option."
Any joint action between the United States and Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Shi'ite Iran's 1979 revolution, a sign of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.
US Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an "existential threat" for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: "I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive."
As for airstrikes: "They're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important," 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."
Iran has long standing ties to Maliki and other Shi'ite politicians who came to power in US-backed elections.
In Baghdad, Brett McGurk, the State Department's point man on Iraq, and US Ambassador Stephen Beecroft, met with Maliki on Monday, US officials said. The meeting is part of a US effort to prod Maliki to govern in a less sectarian manner.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Obama had not yet decided on political demands to be presented to Maliki.
ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on medieval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shi'ites heretics as deserving of death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.
Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam's era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.
ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran another town on Monday, Saqlawiya, west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks.
Witnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to provide cover for retreating troops.
A security officer said he saw a helicopter that was shot down by an anti-aircraft machine gun. There was no official comment from the government.
Overnight, the fighters captured the city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq, solidifying their grip on the north.
"Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi'ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east," said a city official.
Tal Afar is near Mosul, the north's main city, which ISIL seized last week. Fighters then swept through towns on the Tigris before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.
Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a city on the Tigris river that is home to a Shi'ite shrine. A convoy sent to reinforce troops there was ambushed on Sunday by Sunni fighters near Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.
An Iraqi army spokesman reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.