BAGHDAD — Sunni militants captured a key northern Iraqi town along the highway to Syria early Monday, compounding the woes of Iraq's Shiite-led government a week after it lost a vast swath of territory to the insurgents in the country's north.
The town of Tal Afar, with a population of some 200,000 people, was taken just before dawn, Mayor Abdulal Abdoul said.
The town's ethnic mix of mostly ethnic Shiite and Sunni Turkomen raises the specter of large-scale atrocities by Sunni militants from the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, who already claim to have killed hundreds of Shiites in areas they captured last week.
Tal Afar's capture comes a week after Sunni militants took Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit in a lightning offensive that has plunged Iraq into its worst crisis since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. troops.
A resident in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad, confirmed the town's fall and said over the telephone that militants in pickups mounted with machine guns and flying black jihadi banners were roaming the streets as gunfire rang out.
Meanwhile, with Baghdad threatened by the advance of an al-Qaida-inspired insurgency, the State Department is reinforcing security at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq's capital — and sending some personnel out of town.
Much of the embassy staff will stay in place, State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said in a statement released Sunday. The statement did not say the number of personnel affected. The embassy, along the Tigris River in Baghdad's Green Zone, has about 5,000 personnel and is the largest U.S. diplomatic post in the world.
Some embassy staff members were being temporarily moved elsewhere to more stable places at consulates in Basra, in the Shiite-dominated south of Iraq, and Irbil, in the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northeastern Iraq, and to Jordan, she said.
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