BAGHDAD – Islamic militants captured the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar – considered by the insurgents to be key in a plan to create an Islamic state spanning Iraq and Syria – early Monday, residents said.
Roughly 200,000 people, mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkmen, live in the town, which was taken just before dawn, city officials and residents confirmed. Tal Afar's fall marks another striking blow to Iraq's Shiite-led government a week after it lost a vast swath of territory in the country's north.
Local security forces left the town before dawn, and hundreds of residents fled.
"The situation is really terrible, the city was captured by terrorists," said Wisam Damirji, an Iraqi in Turkey after calling his family in Tal Afer. "My family has moved to Sinjar (in Kurdistan), it is much safer under the Kurdish control. The terrorists are saying that their war is not against certain sects but against soldiers and policemen – but as the majority of Tal Afer are soldiers and policemen, there will be a massacre."
The latest setback came after the United States said Sunday it was evacuating some staff from its embassy and beefing up security as deadly explosions rocked the Iraqi capital and militants released graphic images appearing to show its fighters massacring captured Iraqi soldiers.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that an undisclosed number of staffers will be moved to Amman, Jordan, or U.S. consulates elsewhere in Iraq not immediately threatened by the insurgent group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.
The State Department issued a travel warning for Iraq Sunday night that cautioned U.S. citizens to avoid "all but essential travel to Iraq. Travel within Iraq remains dangerous given the security situation." Violence in many regions of the country is as intense as it's been since 2007, the warning said.
The embassy will remain fully operational with "some additional U.S. government security personnel,'' the State Department said. The embassy, inside the Green Zone near the Tigris River, employs thousands of people, some local hires and others from the United States.
Earlier Sunday, photos posted on a militant website show what look to be masked fighters of ISIL loading captives onto flatbed trucks before forcing them to lie face-down in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs. The bodies of the captives are then shown, soaked in blood after being shot.
The AP said the images were verified and were consistent with its reporting. Iraq's top military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, confirmed the authenticity of the photos Sunday and said he was aware of cases of mass murder of Iraqi soldiers.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned and denounced as "horrifying" a claim by ISIL that it has massacred 1,700 Shia air force recruits in Tikrit. She called the claim "a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent.''
She said that while the United States cannot confirm the massacres, one of the insurgents' goals "is to set fear into the hearts of all Iraqis and drive sectarian division among its people.''
Meanwhile, a string of explosions in Baghdad killed at least 15 and wounded more than 30 on Sunday. A car bomb early Sunday killed 10 and wounded 21 in the city center. After nightfall, another explosion went off in the area, killing two and wounding five. A third blast hit near a falafel shop in the Sadr City district, killing three and wounding seven.
Iraqis living in Baghdad – also scared of the widening conflict – are trying to flee the capital to the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Erbil, the fourth largest city in Iraq, is considered a safe haven and has so far managed to avoid the deadly advance into Iraq by ISIL.
"It is the same in Baghdad, many people want to book a ticket to come to Erbil," said Benjamin Adam, in. "But all tickets have been sold. People cannot travel by car. There are two or three daily flights from Baghdad to Erbil and all of them are full."
Kurdish security forces have been gaining control of territory in the area, pushing back ISIL insurgents and seeing more success than the Iraqi army.
Tal Afar's fall comes a week after Sunni militants captured Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit. The town is 93 miles from Syria's border, where ISIL is battling Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and controls territory next to the Iraqi border.
The Iraqi military had earlier claimed to have repelled an assault by insurgents at Tal Afar, about 30 miles west of Mosul. Residents who fought against the militants described a chaotic scene.
Analysts say the Iraqi military has been caught off-guard by the lightening offensives and doesn't have the expertise to counter the insurgents.
"The Iraqi military doesn't have any history or experience of that kind of conflict or having to deal with that kind of adversary that does have those capabilities," said Matthew Henman, manager of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC). "So it finds itself outmatched and outgunned on the ground."
Late last week, the interior ministry said it had created a new security plan for Baghdad to protect it from advancing militants.
"The plan consists of intensifying the deployment of forces, and increasing intelligence efforts and the use of technology such as (observation) balloons and cameras and other equipment," ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said "We have been in a war with terrorism for a while."
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration is preparing to open direct talks with Iran on the situation in Iraq and ways to counter the radical Sunni militia there.
Contributing: Nabeel reported from Istanbul and Collins from Berlin