Baghdad (AFP) – Militants and security forces battled for control of a strategic Shiite town in north Iraq Monday, sparking “chaos” and a mass exodus as Washington and Tehran mooted a landmark meeting over the crisis.
The assault on the town of Tal Afar, which lies along a critical corridor to war-torn Syria, was the latest in a week-long militant offensive that has spurred the American and Australian embassies to begin evacuating some staff.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist group are also said to have killed scores of Iraqi soldiers as they pushed an advance on the capital, including in a “horrifying” massacre that has drawn international condemnation.
Fighters have entered and taken control of several neighborhoods of Tal Afar, a Shiite Turkman-majority town in Nineveh province, according to officials and residents on Monday.
Abdulal Abbas, the local official responsible for the town and surrounding area, said Tal Afar was dealing with “martyrs, wounded, chaos and refugees,” and that around 200,000 people — nearly half the area’s population — had fled.
The town, which lies near the Syrian border in otherwise Sunni Arab and Kurdish-dominated Nineveh province, had briefly held off a militant offensive that saw fighters led by ISIL take control of vast swathes of territory north of Baghdad in a matter of days.
Militants also took control of the Al-Adhim area, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, on Saturday.
The sweeping unrest has prompted a partial diplomatic evacuation from Baghdad, confirmed thus far by the United States and Australia.
Washington also announced that its sprawling embassy — which sits in Baghdad’s heavily-fortified Green Zone — would receive even more security.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said some embassy staff would be “temporarily relocated” to U.S. consulates in the southern port city of Basra, and the northern Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, both of which have been insulated from the latest unrest.
Others would be flown to the U.S. embassy in Amman, Psaki said, citing “ongoing instability”.
The Iraqi government insists it is making progress in retaking territory from militants, who currently hold most or parts of four provinces north of Baghdad.
It said on Sunday that security forces had killed 279 militants and that soldiers have recaptured towns north of Baghdad.
As troops begin to push back against militants, evidence of brutal violence against members of the security forces has emerged.
The U.S. condemned a massacre in which ISIL militants appear to have killed scores of soldiers around the conflict-hit city of Tikrit, while the burned bodies of 12 policemen were also found in the town of Ishaqi.
Photos posted online were said to show jihadists summarily executing dozens of captured members of the security forces in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, with tweets attributed to ISIL claiming they had killed 1,700 in all.
The photos and the claims could not be independently verified.
“The claim … is horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent,” Psaki said.
Washington has also deployed an aircraft carrier group to the Gulf as U.S. President Barack Obama said he was weighing “all options” on how to support the Iraqi government.
But he has ruled out a return to Iraq for U.S. soldiers, who left the country at the end of 2011 after a bloody and costly intervention launched in 2003.
The U.S. and Iran have also raised the possibility of direct engagement over the Iraq crisis, with the Wall Street Journal reporting, citing U.S. officials, that the Obama administration may use nuclear talks starting in Vienna on Monday as a venue.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani surprised observers by saying days earlier that Iran may “think about” cooperating with Washington, with whom it has not had diplomatic relations for more than three decades.
The possibility of U.S.-Iran discussions came as the crisis entered its second week.
After days of unrest elsewhere in the Sunni Arab-majority north and west of Iraq, militants launched an assault on the country’s second-biggest city Mosul on June 9, and swiftly moved down to Tikrit, executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown.
Iraqi forces performed poorly early on, abandoning vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms, with militants reaching within less than 100 kilometres (60 miles) of Baghdad.
Baghdad’s embattled forces, which have performed better in recent days, will be joined by a flood of volunteers after a call to arms from top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but a recruitment center for volunteers came under attack on Sunday, leaving six people dead.
AFP Photo/Ahmad Al-Rubaye