White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters on Monday that while the US could discuss the crisis in Iraq with Iran on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna, Washington was not interested in military cooperation with the Islamic Republic.
"Any conversations with the Iranian regime will not include military coordination," Earnest told journalists. "We're not interested in any effort to coordinate military activities with Iran."
But in an interview with Yahoo News earlier on Monday, Secretary of State Kerry said that he "wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive" to stop the rapid advance of the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including cooperation with Iran.
Kerry's comments came after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani also expressed openness to cooperating with Washington in Iraq. Rouhani told a news conference on Saturday that "we can think about it, if we see America starts confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq and elsewhere."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government is closely allied with both Iran and the US. Cooperation between Washington and Tehran in Iraq would signal a major thaw in their otherwise adversarial relationship, just as they seek to conclude a final deal over the Islamic Republic's disputed nuclear program by the end of July.
Washington broke off official diplomatic relations with Tehran in 1979, after Iranian revolutionaries stormed the American embassy and held 66 US diplomats hostage for 444 days.
US 'deeply committed' to Iraq
In his Monday interview, Kerry went on to say that the US was "deeply committed to the integrity of Iraq as a country." The Secretary of State said that Washington may carry out drone strikes against ISIS.
According to US broadcaster CNN, Washington deployed the amphibious transport dock ship USS Mesa Verde to the Persian Gulf on Monday. The warship reportedly had 550 marines on board. But US President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq. The Pentagon has already deployed an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush, to the region.
On Friday, Kerry said that President Obama would take "timely decisions" about how to address the advance of ISIS, an al Qaeda splinter group.
UN relocates staff
ISIS militants reportedly captured Tal Afar on Monday. The northern city, located 548 kilometers (340 miles) northwest of Baghdad and 70 kilometers west of Mosul, has a predominantly ethnic Turkmen population of 200,000.
Meanwhile, the United Nations has pulled 58 of its 200 staff members out of Baghdad and temporarily relocated them to Amman, Jordan. According to spokesman Farhan Haq, the UN intends ultimately to move them to Irbil in the autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
"Some other relocations may also take place in the next few days," Haq said. "The situation has changed on the ground and we are adjusting our posture accordingly."
Saudis call for Iraqi unity
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has called on Iraq's Shiite-led government to reach out to the country's minority Sunni community. Riyadh said that Baghdad should form a national unity government as quickly as possible.
The Saudis accused Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki of triggering the current crisis by pursuing "sectarian and exclusionary" policies. Iraq's Sunnis have accused al-Maliki of using counterterrorism as pretense to discriminate against and oppress their minority community.
Reports from the region have suggested that some Sunni communities in Iraq are welcoming ISIS advances, viewing the group as a possible defender against the Shiite-led central government in Baghdad.
slk/jm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)