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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

President Trump and former Vice President Biden at first 2020 presidential debate

Screenshot from C-Span YouTube

Reprinted with permission from DailyKos

Donald Trump is claiming that he will still debate despite the rule change that will cut off the candidates' microphones while their opponent delivers his initial two-minute response to each of the debate's topics. But everything else Trump and his campaign are saying sounds like they're laying the groundwork to back out.

"I will participate," Trump told reporters Monday night. "But it's very unfair that they changed the topics and it's very unfair that again we have an anchor who's totally biased." At his Arizona rally Monday, Trump attacked moderator Kristen Welker as a "radical Democrat" and claimed she had "deleted her entire account," which is false. Trump's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, went further in his whining about the debate.

Stepien touted a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates as "Our letter to the BDC (Biden Debate Commission)." That letter came before the CPD announced that it would mute microphones for portions of the debate in response to Trump's constant interruptions at the first debate, though Stepien knew such a decision was likely coming, writing, "It is our understanding from media reports that you will soon be holding an internal meeting to discuss other possible rule changes, such as granting an unnamed person the ability to shut off a candidate's microphone. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to wield such power, and a decision to proceed with that change amounts to turning further editorial control of the debate over to the Commission which has already demonstrated its partiality to Biden."

Shooooot, here I thought it was generous to Trump that the microphones will only be cut to give each candidate two uninterrupted minutes, leaving Trump the remainder of each 15-minute debate segment to interrupt.

But what did Stepien mean by "other possible rule changes," you ask? What was the first rule change? Well, it wasn't one. Stepien wrote to strongly complain that "We write with great concern over the announced topics for what was always billed as the 'Foreign Policy Debate' in the series of events agreed to by both the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign many months ago." Welker's announced topics include "Fighting COVID-19, American families, Race in America, Climate Change, National Security, and Leadership," Stepien complained, using this as a launching pad to attack Biden on foreign policy.

Except this debate was never billed as a foreign policy debate. It's true that in past years, the third debate has sometimes focused on foreign policy, but here in 2020, the CPD's original announcement of debate formats and moderators said of the third debate, "The format for the debate will be identical to the first presidential debate," and the first debate "will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator."

So even before the CPD finalized the decision to prevent Trump from interrupting for two minutes in each of six segments, so 12 minutes out of a 90-minute debate, Team Trump was falsely complaining that the debate was rigged. No wonder—as a Biden campaign spokesman noted, the Trump campaign is upset "because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response."

Trump has lost one debate and backed out of one debate. If he goes into this one with the attitude he's showing now—attacking the moderator, attacking the topics, enraged that he can't interrupt for two entire minutes at a time—he's going to lose this one, badly, once again hurting his already weak reelection prospects. So which will it be? Back out and have that be the story, or alienate one of the largest audiences of the entire presidential campaign by showing what kind of person he is?