Iraqi extremists took over the small city of Tal Afar, in northwestern Iraq, on Monday, according to Iraqi security officials and residents, sending Shiite and Sunni residents fleeing.
Tal Afar’s fall followed a two-day-long battle between the Iraqi military and insurgents of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. The militants have now gained control of another city on the road to Syria through Nineveh province, after the fall less than a week earlier of the province’s capital, Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.
As concern mounted about the Sunni militants’ advances toward Baghdad, and about their claims of slaughtering Shiites as they marched, U.S. and Iranian officials signaled a new willingness to work together to stem the crisis.
One senior administration official said that Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns may talk to the Iranians about Iraq at the nuclear talks in Vienna this week. “There may be discussion of that on the margins,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss unfinished planning.
In Tehran, President Hassan Rouhani said that despite years of acrimony, his government would not rule out working with the United States to try to stabilize the situation in Iraq. “We have said that all countries must unite in combating terrorism,” he said.
But U.S. and Iranian officials also put new pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq to reach out to Sunni Arabs and include more of them in his government and security forces. On Sunday, President Barack Obama made such an effort a prerequisite for any direct U.S. military help.
Iran seems to be preparing to step in if needed. There have been unconfirmed reports from Iraq of Iranian troops on the ground there, with estimates ranging from 500 to 2,000 Iranian soldiers.
On Friday, U.S. officials said that Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the shadowy commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, had flown to Iraq with dozens of his officers to advise Iraq’s beleaguered leadership about how to stop the advance of Sunni militants on Baghdad.
Both Rouhani and his deputy stopped short of completely denying any Iranian military presence in Iraq. On Saturday, Rouhani said the Iraqi government had not asked for Iranian support.
“If the Iraqi government asks us for help, we may provide any assistance the Iraqi nation would like us to provide in the fight against terrorism,” he said. “However, the engagement of Iranian forces has not been discussed.”
In northern Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant militants claimed that along with taking Tal Afar, they had captured the commander of Iraqi Army forces in the city, Gen. Abu al-Waleed, and planned to execute him in a square in central Mosul. Residents said the militants were using bullhorns to call people to come to the square to witness the execution, but there was no confirmation yet that it had taken place.
Iraqiya, the Iraqi state television channel, said the Tal Afar commander was alive and well, however.
“I am in good health and on the battlefield and will announce victory over ISIS in all of the territory of Tal Afar in the next few hours,” the channel quoted the general as saying, referring to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, without broadcasting audio or video of his remarks.
Residents in Tal Afar, which has a population of 200,000, said most Shiite families had fled west, toward the town of Sinjar, while Sunnis went east, toward Mosul, about 30 miles away.
Separately, Brig. Gen. Saad Maan, the spokesman for the Baghdad Operation Command, held a news briefing to announce that authorities had killed 56 terrorists in areas of western and southern Baghdad. He also denied reports by Al-Hadath Television, part of the Saudi-owned Arabiya television network, that the insurgents had launched strikes near Baghdad International Airport.
“The airport is functional, and everything is normal,” Maan said, adding that the authorities wanted Al-Hadath to be shut down.
He also added that the government planned to continue paying employees of the Ministry of Interior, which includes police forces, even if their areas fall under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
After reading a brief statement, the Iraqi officer concluded his briefing without taking any questions.