U.S. President Barack Obama on Monday notified Congress that he intended to send 275 military personnel to Iraq to safeguard the security of American government officials and citizens there, in the face of escalating sectarian violence linked to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which had captured at least three major cities over the weekend and on Monday.

The announcement came after reports suggested that ISIS had reached within 60 kilometres of Baghdad by Tuesday, and United Nations envoy to Baghdad Nickolay Mladenov was quoted saying, “Right now, it's life-threatening for Iraq but it poses a serious danger to the region.”

In a letter to House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner Mr. Obama said, “This force is deploying for the purpose of protecting U.S. citizens and property, if necessary, and is equipped for combat. This force will remain in Iraq until the security situation becomes such that it is no longer needed.”

With fears of the September 11, 2012 attack against the U.S. Embassy compound in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stephens and several other government officials were killed, still looming large in Washington, the President appeared to be taking pre-emptive steps to fortify the defences of the country’s diplomatic outpost in Baghdad.

Nearly 170 U.S. personnel had already arrived in Baghdad, doubling the existing numbers on the ground there, said Rear Admiral John Kirby in a statement from the Pentagon. A further 100 military personnel were said to be posted “nearby outside Iraq to assist.”

The movement of military personnel comes on the back of last week’s announcement by the administration that it was moving an aircraft carrier and two missile-carrying ships to the Persian Gulf, prompting speculation of imminent air strikes or, as an alternative, drone attacks.

The move also follows remarks by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on the eve of resumed negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme, that Washington was “open to discussions” with Tehran if it could help end the violence and restore confidence in the Iraqi government.

ISIS, which is a jihadist outfit linked to al-Qaeda, stunned many last week when it seized both Mosul and Tikrit, and on Monday was said to have captured the city of Tal Afar.

Fears about growing instability in the region appeared to be corroborated in a television interview the son of Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, Qubad, who said, “The Iraq we knew has come to an end,” and that the failure of the country’s leaders to hammer out a political agreement acceptable to all Iraqis was at the heart of this collapse.

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