Volunteers who have joined the Iraqi Army to fight
militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant take part in a parade in the streets in Al-Fdhiliya
district, eastern Baghdad. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Sunni insurgents have seized a mainly ethnic Turkmen city
in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting, solidifying their
grip on the north after a lightning offensive that threatens to
Residents reached by telephone in the city of Tal Afar said
it had fallen to the rebels from the Islamic State of Iraq
and the Levant after a battle which saw heavy casualties on
"The city was overrun by militants. 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 who asked not to be identified.
Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main
city, which the ISIL fighters seized last week at the start
of a drive that has plunged the country into the worst crisis
since U.S. troops withdrew.
Most of the inhabitants of Tal Afar are members of the
Turkmen ethnic group, who speak a Turkic language. Turkey has
expressed concern about their security.
The city had been defended by an unit of Iraq's security
forces commanded by a Shi'ite major general, Abu Walid, whose
men were among the few holdouts from the government's forces
in the province around Mosul not to flee the rapid ISIL
After sweeping through towns in the Tigris valley north of
Baghdad, ISIL fighters appear to have halted their advance
outside the capital, instead moving to tighten their grip on
The Turkmen and other residents of Tal Afar are divided among
Sunnis and Shi'ites in a part of Iraq with a complex ethnic
and sectarian mixture. The city is just outside Iraq's
autonomous Kurdish region, whose own security forces have
taken advantage of the collapse of government control to
advance into the city of Kirkuk and rural areas with oil
ISIL fighters aim to establish a Caliphate on both sides of
the Syria-Iraqi frontier based on strict medieval Sunni
Muslim precepts. Their advance has been assisted by other
Sunni Muslim armed groups.
The advance has alarmed Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's
Shi'ite supporters in Iran as well as the United States,
which helped bring Maliki to power after its 2003 invasion
that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he is reviewing military
options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency,
and Iran has held out the prospect of working with its
longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.
Washington said on Sunday it was beefing up security at its
embassy in Baghdad and moving some staff out.
The vast mission is the largest and most expensive embassy
ever built anywhere in the world, a vestige of the days when
the United States had 170,000 troops in Iraq battling to put
down a sectarian civil war that followed its invasion.
Iraq now faces the prospect of similarly vicious warfare, but
this time with no U.S. forces on the ground to intervene. Its
million-strong army, trained and armed by Washington at a
cost of around $25 billion, has been plagued by corruption,
poor morale and a perception it pursues Shi'ite sectarian
Residents in Tal Afar said Shi'ite police and troops rocketed
Sunni neighbourhoods before the ISIL forces moved in and
finally captured the city. A member of Maliki's security
committee told Reuters government forces had attacked ISIL
positions on the outskirts of the city with helicopters.
"The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy
fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they
can't leave town," a local official said on Sunday before the
city was overrun. "If the fighting continues, a mass killing
among civilians could result."
Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq and are based mainly
in the south, have rallied to defend the country, with
thousands of volunteers turning out to join the security
forces after a mobilisation call by the top Shi'ite cleric.
Maliki's security forces and allied militias regained some
territory on Saturday.
In Baghdad on Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated explosives
in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and
wounding 20 in a crowded street in the centre of the capital,
police and medical sources said.
At least six people were killed, including three soldiers and
three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting
centre in Khalis, one of the last big towns in government
hands north of the capital, 50 km (30 miles) north of
Volunteers were being gathered by the army to join fighting
to regain control of the nearby town of Udhaim.
ISIL fought as Al Qaeda's Iraq branch against U.S. forces
during the years of American occupation in Iraq, but broke
away from Al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It
now says the group founded by Osama bin Laden is not extreme
In years of fighting on both sides of the frontier, ISIL has
gained a reputation for shocking brutality. It considers
Shi'ites to be heretics deserving of death and sends bombers
daily to kill hundreds of Iraqi civilians each month.
A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter
account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group
shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone on the
Captions accompanying the pictures said they showed hundreds
of army deserters who were captured as they tried to flee the
fighting. They were shown being transported in the back of
truck and led to an open field where they were laid down in
rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures,
the black Islamist ISIL flag can be seen.
Most of the captured men were wearing civilian clothes,
although one picture showed two men in military camouflage
trousers, one of them half covered by a pair of ordinary
"This is the fate of the Shi'ites which Nuri brought to fight
the Sunnis," a caption to one of the pictures reads. Others
showed ISIL fighters apparently seizing facilities in Tikrit,
Saddam Hussein's hometown, which they captured on Wednesday.
It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of
Across the border, a Syrian government air raid hit near
ISIL's headquarters in the eastern city of Raqqa, Syrian
The only Syrian provincial capital in insurgent hands, Raqqa
has been a major base for ISIL since the group evicted rival
rebels, including al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, during
infighting this year.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
warplanes targeted the governorate building, a large
structure in the centre of town, as well as two other
buildings, including a sharia, or Islamic law, court.
The fighting in Iraq is by far the worst since U.S. troops
pulled out in 2011. U.S. President Barack Obama has come
under fire at home for failing to do more to bolster Baghdad.
While expressing support for Maliki's government, the United
States has stressed the need for a political solution to the
crisis. Maliki's opponents accuse him of sidelining Sunnis,
which fuelled resentment that fed the insurgency.
Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraq's foreign minister in
a call on Saturday that U.S. assistance would only succeed if
Iraqi leaders set aside their differences and forged the
national unity needed to confront the insurgent threat.
The United States ordered an aircraft carrier moved into the
Gulf on Saturday, readying it in case Washington decides to
pursue a military option.
Oil prices have risen to the highest level this year over
fears of the violence disrupting exports from the OPEC