Fighters affiliated with an extremist Al Qaeda-inspired faction seized control of another town in the northwest of Iraq on Monday, beating back pro-government forces scrambling to stop the group's advance.
Tal Afar, an ethnically diverse town of Sunni Muslims and Turkmen, was overrun by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, after heavy clashes with Iraqi army units and Turkmen tribal fighters, according to Turkey's semi-official Anatolia news agency. Pro-government activists in Tal Afar, however, asserted on social media that the fight was continuing, with heavy airstrikes against the militants' positions.
The latest ISIS onslaught sent hundreds of families fleeing, Anatolia reported. The radical Sunni Muslim group is known for its barbaric treatment of foes, especially Shiite Muslims. The fall of Tal Afar, about 260 miles northwest of the capital, Baghdad, came a day after the group posted online images depicting the gruesome executions of dozens of captive Iraqi troops.
Over the last week, ISIS fighters have captured oil-rich Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, and seized Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. Better equipped and numerically superior Iraqi army and police units abandoned their posts and fled. Other areas fell with a similar lack of resistance as ISIS fighters swept to within 50 miles of Baghdad.
The U.S. State Department announced Sunday that it was evacuating some of the staff from its massive embassy in Baghdad and bringing in additional American security personnel.
Kurdish forces, taking advantage of the vacuum left by deserting Iraqi forces, advanced to take over army positions and assert control over the city of Kirkuk.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite strongman whose sectarian policies had marginalized Sunnis throughout his eight-year rule, vowed to recapture lost territory and drive out the attackers.
"This black conspiracy that was woven in Mosul -- we must dye it with the blood of the traitors," he said in a fiery speech at an army headquarters in Baghdad on Sunday night, hours before Tal Afar fell. "The defeat ... will not continue, and there is a sea of men marching to put an end to this."
Shiite political and religious leaders have called on volunteers to join local militias organized largely along sectarian lines. That has ignited fears that the ISIS offensive will lead to an all-out sectarian conflict.