IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria claimed control Monday of the last major city that had been held by the government in northern Iraq.
The government denied that Tal Afar had fallen to ISIS, but that assertion was contradicted by hundreds of families who’d fled for safety to nearby areas controlled by Kurdish militias.
If confirmed, ISIS’s capture of Tal Afar would allow the group to consolidate its control of a strategic supply corridor between its Syrian and Iraq strongholds.
It would also end, at least for now, any claim by the central government in Baghdad to authority in northern Iraq and would allow ISIS to claim for its nascent Islamist caliphate a contiguous territory that stretches from the Syrian city of Raqqa through Iraq’s Nineveh province to the outskirts of Baghdad.
The fall of Tal Afar would be freighted with historic import. American troops battled ISIS’s early incarnation, al Qaida in Iraq, for control of the city in 2005. At one time, the pacification of Tal Afar was considered a major triumph for U.S. forces.
There were other signs of the collapse of Iraqi security.
In a letter, President Barack Obama told leaders of Congress Monday that as many as 275 troops had been dispatched to Baghdad to augment security at the U.S. Embassy. The Pentagon had announced Sunday that additional troops would be sent, but did not provide a number.
There were also reports that a major battle was unfolding for the former U.S. military base at Taji, just 20 miles north of Baghdad. Residents reached by phone reported that ISIS and its Sunni tribal allies had mounted a two-pronged assault on the base _ from the west and the north.
The residents described heavy outgoing and incoming artillery and said Iraqi army forces were pulling back from checkpoints on the outskirts of town toward the base as they were attacked.
The Taji base, which was known as Camp Cooke to thousands of American service members who served in Iraq, is Iraq’s largest military facility, and the town is the most important population center still in government hands on the northern approaches to the capital.
Shiite militias, summoned to meet the advance of the Sunni extremist ISIS, have heavily reinforced the area in the last week.
In Syria, meanwhile, ISIS reportedly offered a temporary cease-fire Monday in its battle with Syrian rebel groups. The cease-fire was intended to allow ISIS to respond more forcefully to attacks by Syrian government forces in Deir el Zour province, which lies between ISIS’s Raqqa stronghold and ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq’s Anbar province.
Refugees and residents from Tal Afar who spoke with relatives in Irbil described Tal Afar as mostly in ISIS’s control, though some skirmishing was still taking place.
Kurdish officials speaking on local television said hundreds of Shiite Muslims had arrived at a checkpoint manned by Kurdish militiamen in northern Iraq. Video of their arrival showed hundreds of people queuing at a border post that links Nineveh province to the Kurdish autonomous region of northern and eastern Iraq, which has remained reasonably peaceful. Kurdish authorities have generally avoided being dragged into the intra-Arab sectarian civil war that’s raging through a large swath of western, northern and central Iraq.
Large numbers of Christians who’d fled villages outside Tal Afar also were among the refugees.
“They are driving the people from their homes,” said Avi, a Christian from Irbil who asked that his last name be withheld because he has family members living outside Tal Afar. “They murdered us in 2005, and the Americans could not protect us” he said, referring to al Qaida in Iraq’s activities in the city during the earlier conflict. “Now the Iraqi government cannot protect us. There is nothing left in Iraq for Christians.”
The rapid advance by ISIS to the outskirts of Baghdad has put the capital on edge. On Monday, the United Nations announced that it would pull at least 58 staff members from its mission in Baghdad and move them to Amman, Jordan. The announcement came a day after the United States said it had reassigned an undisclosed number of staffers from its embassy in Baghdad to Amman or the relative safety of Irbil or Basra, in southern Iraq.
Iraqi state television said airstrikes targeted ISIS formations around the ISIS-controlled city of Tikrit but these claims couldn’t be verified.
Whether the United States would take any action to assist the Iraqi government remained uncertain. In comments Monday, Secretary of State John Kerry put special emphasis on U.S. frustration with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
“We are deeply committed to the integrity of Iraq as a country,” he said. “We are deeply committed to the constitutional process, but we’ve also had great difficulties with the existing government in their unwillingness to reach out and be inclusive and bring people to the table and be sufficiently responsible in their pluralistic approach to governance.”
Kerry appeared to lay the blame for the failure of the security forces, which the United States spent billions of dollars training before American troops left at the end of 2011, on favoritism by Maliki toward Shiites.
“That’s why you’ve really seen so many of these Sunni communities just melt away, because there is an ambivalence,” he said. “There’s a huge conflict in their own minds in their dislike of the existing government, but there are also terror and fear at the hands of a terrorist group.”
Kerry also appeared the leave open the possibility that the U.S. might coordinate any military effort _President Obama has ruled out sending conventional ground troops but has said he’s asked the Pentagon to draw up other options _ with Iran, which has already begun supporting the Iraqi government with advisers.
But Pentagon spokesman Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby discounted any cooperation with Iran, leaving the impression the Pentagon and the State Department were at cross purposes in deciding how to respond to the Iraq crisis.
“There is absolutely no intention to coordinate military activities between the United States and Iran,” Kirby told reporters.
Asked whether Kerry had gotten ahead of the Obama administration in opening the door to U.S.-Iranian cooperation, Kirby responded: “I’m not going to speak for the secretary of state.”
A State Department statement later said that the subject of Iraq had come up briefly “on the margins” of negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program, but discounted the possibility that the United States and Iran would coordinate military actions.
“We are open to engaging the Iranians, just as we are engaging other regional plays on the threated posed by (ISIS) in Iraq,” the statement said. “These engagements will not include military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.”
That was consistent with what Josh Earnest, White House deputy press secretary, told reporters: “We’re not interested in any effort to coordinate military activity with Iran,” he said.
In his notice to congressional leaders about the dispatch of additional troops to Baghdad, reequired under the War Powers Resolution, Obama said the troops were “equipped for combat” and had been assigned to protect “U.S. citizens and property, if necessary.”
Pentagon spokesman Kirby later said the 275 included approximately 100 people to provide airfield management and logistics support “if required.”
“The safety of personnel serving in diplomatic missions abroad is among our highest priorities. The presence of these additional forces will help enable the State Department to continue their critical diplomatic mission and work with Iraqis on challenges they are facing,” Kirby said.
On Sunday, the State Department announced that it had evacuated an undisclosed number of embassy staffers from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, and two Iraqi cities, Irbil in the Kurdish controlled north and Basra in the Shiite south. The Baghdad embassy, with an estimated 5,300 employees, is the largest U.S. diplomatic outpost in the world.
Contributing to this story were Lesley Clark and James Rosen from Washington and McClatchy special correspondents Mousab Alhamadee in Istanbul and John Zarocostas in Geneva.
Prothero is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @mitchprothero