The insurgent offensive that has threatened to dismember Iraq spread to the northwest of the country on Sunday, when Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a town close to the Syrian border, clashing with police and government forces.
As the rapid advance south by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) towards Baghdad appeared to slow over the weekend, fierce fighting erupted in the town of Tal Afar 60 km west of Mosul near the Syrian border, security sources and a local official said.
ISIL fighters and other Sunni Muslim armed groups have stormed several towns on the road to Baghdad after seizing Mosul nearly a week ago — an offensive which only stalled as it approached the mainly Shia capital.
ISIL militants on Sunday boasted on Twitter that they had executed 1,700 Iraqi government soldiers, posting gruesome photos to support their claim.
If the claim is true, it would be the worst mass atrocity in either Syria or Iraq in recent years.
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The still photographs uploaded were bloody and gruesome, showing the insurgents lining up at the edges of what looked like hastily dug mass graves and apparently firing their weapons into groups of young men bound and packed closely together.
The latest attack, if proved, would also raise the spectre of the war in Iraq turning genocidal, particularly because the insurgents boasted that their victims were all Shiites. There were also fears that it could usher in a series of reprisal killings of Shiites and Sunnis, like those seen in the Iraq war in 2005-7.
Sunday’s fighting in Tal Afar, a majority Turkomen town which is home to both Shias and Sunnis, showed how volatile the deepening sectarian divisions have become.
Residents in Sunni districts accused Shia police and army forces of launching mortar fire at their neighbourhoods, prompting ISIL forces stationed outside the town to move in.
“The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can’t leave town,” a local official said. “If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result.”