Residents and local Iraqi officials say Sunni militants have seized the northern city of Tal Afar, the latest capture in a surge of fighting that has resulted in international condemnation and calls for unity in Iraq.
The seizure early Monday comes after a week in which militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized Mosul and Tikrit and threatened to advance on Baghdad.
US diplomatic effort
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not rule out military cooperation with Tehran Monday as a way to "hold Iraq together."
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations in more than three decades. The U.S. and its Western allies are locked in negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear program. But Kerry told Yahoo News that the U.S. is "open to any constructive process" to curb the violence in Iraq and eliminate "outside terrorist forces that are ripping it apart."
Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns is in Geneva for the resumption of the nuclear talks with Iran on Tuesday. Officials say discussions could also be held about the rapid advance of the militants in Iraq and how to combat it.
The U.S. is considering air strikes, including drones, against the militants, who seek to impose an Islamic-based government extending from eastern Syria into western Iraq and beyond. The Shi'ite-controlled Iranian government has condemned the onslaught of the Sunni militants in neighboring Iraq.
Kerry says President Barack Obama is giving "a very thorough vetting of every option that is available" to support the Iraqi government.
The U.S., however, has ruled out sending in ground troops.
US boosts embassy security
The United States is adding about 100 soldiers and Marines to boost security at its embassy in Baghdad, while relocating some non-essential staff to sites in Basrah, Irbil and Amman, and Jordan. A U.S. aircraft carrier has been deployed to the Persian Gulf.
A senior State Department official said Sunday that Kerry spoke with his counterparts from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates about the need to support the people of Iraq and Syria against the threat of ISIL. The official said the ministers also talked about the need for Iraq's leaders to implement a "coordinated and effective approach" to move the country forward.
Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
- Formed by members of al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria and Iraq
- Aims to establish an Islamic emirate across Syria and Iraq
- Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq
- Believed to have 5,000 to 7,000 fighters
- Has launched high-profile attacks in both countries
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also stressed the need for political and social measures and an "inclusive national security plan" to address the security threat. He again condemned the violence by ISIL, including what his spokesman called "deeply disturbing" reports of summary executions by the militants.
Pictures the militants posted Sunday on the Internet appear to show fighters executing a group of Iraqi soldiers.
Some of the victims are seen crouching with weapons aimed directly at their heads. The authenticity of the photographs cannot be verified.
Maliki fights back
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, told reporters Sunday that Iraqi forces had "regained the initiative" in their fight against Sunni militants and had killed 279 terrorists since Saturday.
The government's claim and casualty numbers are hard to verify, but Iraqi forces and Shi'ite volunteers are starting to regroup and bolster their defenses, especially around Baghdad.
Many government fighters abandoned their positions and left their weapons and vehicles behind last week as the militants seized territory in the north.
NATO calls for release of Turks
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called on Monday for the immediate release of Turkish diplomatic and security staff held by insurgents in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
Fighters from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) kidnapped 49 Turks, including special forces soldiers, diplomats and children, from the Turkish consulate on Wednesday as they overran Mosul.
“We follow the dangerous developments in Iraq with great concern. I condemn the unacceptable attack on the consulate general in Mosul,” Rasmussen said during a visit to Ankara, standing beside Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.
“We want to see all of the Turkish hostages released and we want to see them safe,” he said.
The ISIL offensive threatens to dismember Iraq and leaves Turkey, a NATO member, facing a widening Islamist insurgency in two of its southern neighbors, with ISIL also making territorial gains in Syria near the Turkish border.
Ankara has the second largest armed forces in the NATO military alliance after the United States. It is hosting six NATO Patriot missile batteries meant to defend it against any attacks from Syria.
The diplomats and soldiers trapped inside the Mosul consulate had no option but to surrender after hundreds of heavily-armed Islamist militants surrounded the building, the Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has said the hostages are unharmed and that all efforts are being made to secure their release, as well as a second group of 31 Turkish truck drivers also captured by ISIL last week.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said on CNN that the United States has to bring Iraqi Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds together in unified fashion to confront a common threat.
Material from Reuters was used in this report.