Hardline Sunni militants have increased their grip on northern Iraq today, capturing a strategically important city that links newly seized territory with Syria.
The group, which is led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), overran Tal Afar just before dawn this morning following fighting on Sunday, the Associated Press reported. It was the latest city to fall to ISIS after it launched a devastating offensive last week and seized a swath of northern Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein.
Tal Afar, home to around 200,000, is located along a highway that stretches between the Syrian border and Iraq's second city of Mosul, which ISIS captured on June 10. The city has a mixed Sunni and Shiite population, which could lead to targeted sectarian violence against civilians, as ISIS views Shiites as apostates.
This weekend ISIS released a series of extremely graphic pictures that it described as showing some of the 1700 Shiite soldiers it claims to have slaughtered.
Footage described as showing Iraqi soldiers, who were captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) at a border post, was circulating online on June 15.
Video has also emerged that seems to show an ISIS gunman interrogating then gunning down Iraqi soldiers.
Iraqi government forces are now fortifying Baghdad, which ISIS has said it intends to attack. A number of Shiite militias are also being formed in the capital after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the country's most senior Shiite cleric, told his followers to defend their country against Sunni militants.
The international community has become increasingly alarmed at the intensifying situation. In a sign of just how distressed the US has become, officials told Reuters that the country is open to talks and/or cooperation with long-time foe Iran to help manage the rapidly deteriorating security conditions.
Iranian officials have reportedly made similar statements, but the country's Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Seyed Abbas Araqchi has dismissed speculation that discussion might take place during nuclear talks being held in Vienna this week.
“During the Vienna talks, only the issue of Iran’s nuclear activities will be discussed,” he said in a report carried by the state-owned English-language news network Press TV.
Today US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deployed the USS Mesa Verde, an amphibious transport dock ship, to the Arabian Gulf, according to a Department of Defense statement.
The ship, which carries a compliment of MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, has now completed its transit through the Strait of Hormuz, said Pentagon Press Secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby.
“Its presence in the Gulf adds to that of other US naval ships already there... and provides the commander in chief additional options to protect American citizens and interests in Iraq, should he choose to use them,” Kirby said.
Meanwhile, a number of embassies began moving staff from Baghdad. The US State Department announced yesterday that it would be shifting some personnel elsewhere in the country and to Amman, Jordan as well as deploying extra security teams. The United Nations has also relocated a number of staff to Jordan.
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