As Iraqi militants released images that appeared to show the mass “execution” of hundreds of government soldiers, officials in the US said the Obama administration was considering direct talks with Iran to discuss the ongoing crisis.
The two countries were already scheduled to meet with other world powers to confront the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna this week, and the US deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will now travel to take part in those talks.
The move comes after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) group posted images on extremist websites which, reportedly verified by Iraq’s chief military spokesperson, appear to show killings taking place in half a dozen places.
US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the images were “horrifying” and “a true depiction of the bloodlust that those terrorists represent”. She added that the US could not verify Isis’s claim to have killed 1,700 army troops and pro-government militiamen.
The killings were also condemned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who described the reports coming from Iraq as “deeply disturbing”.
He said he welcomed the statement on the need for unity in Iraq made by Grand Ayatollah Sayed Ali Al-Sistani, who he said “represents a deeply influential voice of wisdom and reason”.
“Reports of mass summary executions by Isis are deeply disturbing and underscore the urgency of bringing the perpetrators of such crimes to justice,” Mr Ban said.
Sunni militants continued to make territorial gains in Iraq on Monday morning, with the northern town of Tal Afar becoming the latest landmark settlement to fall.
Tal Afar’s mayor Abdulal Abdoul told reporters his town of some 200,000 people, 260 miles (420 kilometres) northwest of Baghdad, was taken just before dawn.
The varied ethnic mix of Tal Afar distinguishes it from previous Isis captures Mosul and Tikrit, and has led to concerns that large-scale atrocities against civilians could follow.
The Isis advance has raised the prospect of the West once again intervening on the ground in Iraq.
The US President Barack Obama continues to weigh up his country’s options, and has now deployed three warships to the Persian Gulf, but on Sunday senator Lindsey Graham said: “We are probably going to need [Iran’s] help to hold Baghdad.”
Meanwhile, fellow Nato member Turkey has already unwittingly been involved in the conflict after Isis fighters kidnapped 49 of its nationals during the Mosul assault.
Turkey has the second-largest army within Nato after the US, and the military alliance’s Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen today called for the immediate release of those captured. They include children, diplomats and special forces soldiers who were at the Turkish consulate in Mosul at the time it was overrun.
“We follow the dangerous developments in Iraq with great concern,” Mr Rasmussen said. “I condemn the unacceptable attack on the consulate general in Mosul. We want to see all of the Turkish hostages released and we want to see them safe.”
Though the expected Baghdad-led counter-offensive against Isis is yet to take place, Shia militiamen have reportedly begun pushing north to establish a new battle line some 60 to 70 miles north of the capital.
Speaking just hours before the fall of Tal Afar, the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told new security forces recruits that all territory lost to militants would be recovered.
“We will march and liberate every inch they defaced, from the country's northernmost point to the southernmost point,” he said.
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