Iraqi Army volunteers carry weapons during a parade in the
streets in Al-Fdhiliya district, eastern Baghdad.
The United States said it could launch air strikes and
act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi
government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across
Iraq that has brought accusations of war crimes.
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have
routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in
the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash
all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national
The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups who
oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nuri
al-Maliki, a Shi'ite.
The United Nations human rights chief said forces allied with
ISIL had almost certainly committed war crimes by executing
hundreds of non-combatant men in Iraq over the past five days
Joint action between the United States and regional Shi'ite
power Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would
be unprecedented since Iran's 1979 revolution, demonstrating
the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an
"existential threat" for Iraq. Asked if the United States
could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry
told Yahoo News: "I wouldn't rule out anything that would be
As for air strikes: "They're not the whole answer, but they
may well be one of the options that are important," he said.
"When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass
massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to
do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise."
The Pentagon said that while there might be discussions with
Iran, there were no plans to coordinate military action with
Britain, Washington's ally in the 2003 war that deposed Sunni
dictator Saddam Hussein, said it had reached out to Iran in
recent days. A U.S. official said meetings with Iran could
come this week on the sidelines of international nuclear
Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shi'ite
politicians who came to power in U.S.-backed elections.
ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni Muslim
precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's
Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It
considers Shi'ites heretics deserving death and has boasted
of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it
Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures
from Saddam's era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.
ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another
town on Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they
captured six Humvees and two tanks.
Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over
the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.
"It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both
sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the
bodies," said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby
city of Falluja, largely held by insurgents since early this
Overnight, the fighters captured the city of Tal Afar in
northwestern Iraq, solidifying their grip on the north.
"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.
Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main
city, which ISIL seized last week at the start of its push.
Fighters then swept through towns and cities on the Tigris
before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.
Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is
home to a Shi'ite shrine. A convoy travelling to reinforce
the troops there was ambushed late on Sunday by Sunni
fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through
An Iraqi army spokesman in Baghdad reported fighting also to
the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed
over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.
OBAMA WEIGHING OPTIONS
President Barack Obama pulled out all U.S. troops in late
2011 and rules out sending them back, although he is weighing
other options such as air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier
has sailed into the Gulf along with a warship carrying 550
The only U.S. military contingent on the ground is the
security staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington is evacuating
some diplomatic staff and sending about 100 extra marines and
other personnel to help safeguard the facilities.
The United Nations said it had relocated 58 staff to Jordan.
Potential cooperation between the United States and Iran
shows how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map
of Middle East alliances in a matter of days.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected
last year, has presided over a gradual thaw with the West,
including secret talks with Washington that led to a
preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme. But open
cooperation against a mutual threat would be unprecedented.
Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iraq
could anger U.S. allies Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab
states. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main Sunni power, said it
rejected foreign interference in Iraq, and blamed Baghdad's
"sectarian and exclusionary policies" for fuelling the
ISIL fighters' sweep through the Tigris valley north of
Baghdad included Saddam's hometown Tikrit, where they
captured and apparently massacred troops stationed at
Speicher air base, once one of the main U.S. troop
Pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account
appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting
dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they
were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting.
ISIL said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had
captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appear
exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A
former local official in Tikrit told Reuters ISIL had
captured 450-500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere
in Tikrit. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding
out in Speicher.
U.N rights chief Navi Pillay said corroborated reports showed
that soldiers, military conscripts, police and others who had
surrendered or been captured had been summarily executed.
"Although the numbers cannot be verified yet, this apparently
systematic series of cold-blooded executions, mostly
conducted in various locations in the Tikrit area, almost
certainly amounts to war crimes," she said.
Washington has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create
unity, but the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation
than reconciliation. He was shown on television on Monday
meeting military chiefs, vowing to crush the uprising and
root out politicians and officers he blamed for betraying
"We will work on purging Iraq of the traitors, politicians
and those military men who were carrying out their orders,"
Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq based mainly in the
south, have rallied to defend the country, turning out in
their thousands to join militia and the security forces after
a mobilisation call by the top Shi'ite cleric, Ali
A leading Sunni cleric, Rifa al-Rifaie, said Sistani's call
amounted to sectarianism. Sistani is known as a moderate who
never called his followers to arms during the U.S.
"Sistani, that lion, where was he when the Americans occupied
Iraq?" Rifaie said. He gave a list of Sunni grievances: "We
have been treated unjustly, we have been attacked, our blood
had been shed and our women have been raped."
ISIL emerged after Saddam's fall, fought against the U.S.
occupation as al Qaeda's Iraq branch and broke away from al
Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It says the
movement founded by Osama bin Laden is no longer radical
Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who was vice president until
fleeing the country in 2012 after Maliki accused him of
terrorism, said the violence was part of a broader Sunni
revolt that could lead to a holy war, and was not just a
rampage by Islamist militants.
"What happened in my country ... is desperate people
revolted. Simple as that. Arab Sunni communities over 11
years faced discrimination, injustice, corruption," he told
Reuters in an interview on Monday.