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Militants battle Iraq forces, US-Iran talks broached

Militants battled security forces for control of a strategic Shiite town in north Iraq Monday, forcing half the area's population to flee as Washington weighed drone strikes against jihadist fighters leading the charge.

BAGHDAD: Militants battled security forces for control of a strategic Shiite town in north Iraq Monday, forcing half the area's population to flee as Washington weighed drone strikes against jihadist fighters leading the charge.

US Secretary of State John Kerry also said he was open to cooperating with Iran to resolve the week-long crisis which has spurred the United States and Australian embassies to begin evacuating some staff.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist group are said to have killed scores of Iraqi soldiers as they pushed an advance on the capital, including in a "horrifying" massacre that has drawn international condemnation.

In the latest fighting on Monday, militants entered and took control of several neighbourhoods of Tal Afar, a Shiite Turkman-majority town in Nineveh province, according to officials and residents.

Abdulal Abbas, the local official responsible for the town and surrounding area, said Tal Afar was dealing with "martyrs, wounded, chaos and refugees," and that around 200,000 people -- nearly half the area's population -- had fled to nearby areas.

The town, which lies near the Syrian border in otherwise Sunni Arab and Kurdish-dominated Nineveh province, had briefly held off a militant offensive that saw fighters led by ISIL take control of vast swathes of territory north of Baghdad in a matter of days.

Militants also took control of the Al-Adhim area, in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, on Sunday.

Kerry said on Monday that drone strikes were an option in combating the offensive, after US President Barack Obama said he was weighing "all options" on how to support the Iraqi government.

Drones might not be the "whole answer," Washington's top diplomat told Yahoo News, "but they may well be one of the options that are important to be able to stem the tide and stop the movement of people who are moving around in open convoys and trucks and terrorising people."

Washington has already deployed an aircraft carrier to the Gulf, but Obama has ruled out a return to Iraq for US soldiers, who left the country at the end of 2011 after a bloody and costly intervention launched in 2003.

The US and Iran have also raised the possibility of working together over the crisis -- with Kerry saying he would be open to cooperating with Tehran, just days after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his country may "think about" cooperating with Washington.

The Wall Street Journal reported, citing US officials, that the Obama administration may use nuclear talks starting in Vienna on Monday as a venue.

The sweeping unrest has prompted a partial diplomatic evacuation from Baghdad, confirmed thus far by the United States and Australia. France, meanwhile, said some non-essential staff had been moved to Paris.

Washington also announced that its sprawling embassy -- which sits in Baghdad's heavily-fortified Green Zone -- would receive even more security.

The Iraqi government insists it is making progress in retaking territory from militants, who currently hold most or parts of four provinces north of Baghdad.

It said on Sunday that security forces had killed 279 militants and that soldiers have recaptured towns north of Baghdad.

The toll could not be independently confirmed, and Iraqi officials often tout high numbers of militant deaths while downplaying their own casualties.

As troops began to push back against militants, evidence of brutal violence against members of the security forces emerged.

The US condemned a massacre in which ISIL militants appear to have killed scores of soldiers around the conflict-hit city of Tikrit, while the burned bodies of 12 policemen were also found in the town of Ishaqi.

Photos posted online were said to show jihadists summarily executing dozens of captured members of the security forces in Salaheddin province, of which Tikrit is the capital, with tweets attributed to ISIL claiming they had killed 1,700 in all.

The photos and the claims could not be independently verified.

"The claim ... is horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

The international outcry came as the crisis entered its second week.

After days of unrest elsewhere in the Sunni Arab-majority north and west of Iraq, militants launched an assault on the country's second-biggest city Mosul on June 9, and swiftly moved down to Tikrit, executed dictator Saddam Hussein's hometown.

Iraqi forces performed poorly early on, abandoning vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms, with militants reaching within less than 100 kilometres of Baghdad.

Baghdad's embattled forces, which have done better in recent days, will be joined by a flood of volunteers after a call to arms from top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but a recruitment centre for volunteers came under attack on Sunday, leaving six people dead.

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