CAIRO — Despite the loss of the town of Tal Afar, northwest of Baghdad, Iraq's prime minister and his military spokesman continue to insist that government forces are winning the battle against Sunni militants in combat north of the capital. Despite the assurances, many foreign embassies have ordered the evacuation of personnel as fears grow over the possible fall of Baghdad.
Iraqi state TV showed a crowd of Iraqi soldiers south of the capital overnight cheering Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as he delivered a defiant speech, boasting his forces would defeat Sunni militants from the al Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
He said those who are plotting for, counting on or idly imagining that Iraq, Mosul or the armed forces are going to fall are deceiving themselves. It is those politicians themselves who bet on the fall of Mosul or the country who have sullied themselves before history and will be punished for it this day, the next, and before God Almighty.
Despite Maliki's confident tone, he went on to threaten Arab TV networks and local Iraqi media, which he accused of playing with the security of the country. He insisted that they would be punished in accordance with Iraqi law.
Military spokesman Sa'ad Ma'an echoed the prime minister, accusing Saudi-owned al Arabiya TV of broadcasting misinformation. The TV reported Sunday that Baghdad airport had come under attack and flights were suspended. VOA was unable to independently confirm if the story was true or false.
Spokesman Ma'an said government forces had made progress in combating the advancing Sunni militants.
He said that Baghdad security forces have killed 56 “terrorists” and wounded 21 others during the past 24 hours. He claimed that all of the operations were defensive ground actions.
But according to eyewitness reports, Iraqi government forces were defeated in heavy combat overnight and driven out of the mostly Turkmen town of Tal Afar, northwest of Baghdad.
ISIL posted gruesome photos Sunday of hundreds of soldiers whom it claimed to have executed after they had surrendered. The government cut Internet service across most of the country, apparently to prevent the circulation of such photos and other negative news.
Iraqi refugees also complained about government bombing. One woman said she had fled Kirkuk, now under Kurdish control, because government planes were attacking targets inside the city. It was not immediately clear if the planes were targeting Kurdish forces.
Ashirqiya TV also reported government warplanes bombed the mostly Sunni town of Falouja, 40 kilometers west of Baghdad, which is now under control of Sunni militants. The TV added that 13 civilians died from government shelling and air raids.
American University of Beirut political science professor Hilal Khashan tells VOA he thinks it is unlikely that Sunni militants will be able to capture Baghdad or Shi'ite holy cities in the south of Iraq, as they have vowed.
"I do not think ISIL has the capacity to reach Baghdad. Baghdad's defenses are quite strong and their ability to reach the Shi'ite shrines in Karbala are unachievable. ISIL has a plan to create a Sunni state. It will not serve their purposes to get as far as Baghdad or Karbala and get bogged down in a battle they cannot win. They are fighting in parts of Iraq where they have a good chance of winning," said Khashan.
Various media organizations have reported that Iran has sent elite Revolutionary Guard troops to Iraq to help the Maliki government. Secretary of State Kerry has also proposed the United States discuss the defense of Baghdad directly with the Iranian government. Iran's national security advisor, Admiral Ali Shamkani, met Monday with the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.
UN evacuates personnel from Baghdad
U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq says about 58 staffers have been moved from Baghdad and its surrounding areas to Amman, Jordan. Haq said they will be sent to Irbil when possible.
The U.N. has just under 200 international non-essential and essential employees in Baghdad and the surrounding areas. Haq said some more re-locations may be made in the coming days.
Margaret Besheer contributed to this report from the United Nations.