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Associated Press
This image appears to show militants from the ISIL guiding captured Iraqi soldiers dressed in plain clothes after taking over a base in Tikrit, Iraq.

Militants press toward Baghdad

Religiously mixed town falls; US embassy reduces staff

– Al-Qaida renegades captured another major town in northern Iraq on Sunday, forcing hundreds of families to flee into the surrounding desert as their country descended into a new round of bloodletting.

The fall of the religiously mixed town of Tal Afar to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant raised the specter of deepening sectarian violence. It came as the U.S. government announced that it was drawing down staff at its embassy in Baghdad.

This is the first time since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that the embassy has decreased its staffing levels in response to a threat posed by violence, and the move was an indication of the level of concern that the unrest could reach even into the fortresslike Green Zone, where members of the Iraqi government also reside.

Citing the “ongoing instability and violence in certain areas,” a State Department statement said the embassy will also increase the number of security personnel deployed at the heavily guarded mission. A separate Pentagon statement said “a small number” of Defense Department personnel were being sent to augment security at the facility.

The U.S. announcement compounded the sense that there is no end in sight to the chaos that erupted a week ago when ISIL militants swept unopposed into the northern city of Mosul, then rapidly advanced to within 60 miles of Baghdad, scattering the Iraqi security forces in their wake.

Some diplomats will be relocated to the U.S. Consulate in Basra to the south; others to the consulate in Irbil, in the northern Kurdistan region; and others to Amman, Jordan, the statement said, adding that the embassy in Baghdad will remain open.

The United States “strongly supports Iraq and its people as they face security challenges from violent extremists,” the statement said.

But a senior adviser to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the United States needs to do more if Iraq is to be saved. Ali al-Musawi appealed to the Obama administration to commit air support and drone strikes to the fight against the militants; “otherwise there is a danger terrorism will win,” he said.

The United States is sending assistance, “and we are thankful,” he said. “But it is not the help that we are hoping for, given the scale of the dangers Iraq is facing.”

The Obama administration has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf as it decides how to respond to a crisis that threatens the stability of not only Iraq, but also the entire Middle East.

Although there have been widespread reports that Iran has dispatched members of its elite Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Maliki government prefers not to accept Iranian help because of the risk of inflaming sectarian sentiments, Musawi said.

“We have received a lot of offers of help, but we want support through legal channels and not in a way that would provoke sensitivities,” he said.

Shiites are the majority in Iraq, but there are also sizable Sunni and Kurdish populations. The ISIL fighters are Sunni.

Fears of sectarian killings have risen amid the mass rush to arms by thousands of Shiite civilians across Baghdad and the Shiite south in recent days, after senior clerics and the government issued an appeal to civilians to volunteer to fight to reinforce the beleaguered security forces.

An ISIL claim that it had executed scores of men further underscored the risk of sectarian slaughter. The group posted gruesome photos on a Twitter account showing men in civilian clothes lying face-down with their hands bound, in a ditch in Salahuddin province, as masked fighters from ISIL fired at them.