REUTERS - The insurgent offensive that has threatened to dismember Iraq spread to the northwest of the country on Sunday, when Sunni militants launched a dawn raid on a town close to the Syrian border, clashing with police and government forces.
As the rapid advance south by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) towards Baghdad appeared to slow over the weekend, fierce fighting erupted in the town of Tal Afar, 60 km (40 miles) west of Mosul near the Syrian border, security sources and a local official said.
ISIS fighters and other Sunni Muslim armed groups have stormed several towns on the road to Baghdad after seizing Mosul nearly a week ago - an offensive which only stalled as it approached the mainly Shiite capital. The advance alarmed both Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shiite supporters in Iran and officials in the United States, which helped bring him to power after its 2003 invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
U.S. President Barack Obama said on Friday he was reviewing military options, short of sending troops, to combat the insurgency, and Iran held out the prospect of working with its longtime U.S. arch-enemy to help restore security in Iraq.
Maliki's security forces and allied militias regained some territory on Saturday, easing part of the pressure on his Shiite-led government, and officials said they were regaining the initiative. Maliki has vowed to rout the insurgents.
But Sunday's fighting in Tal Afar, a majority Turkomen town which is home to both Shiites and Sunnis, showed how volatile the deepening sectarian divisions have become. Residents in Sunni districts accused Shiite police and army forces of launching mortar fire at their neighborhoods, prompting ISIS forces stationed outside the town to move in.
"The situation is disastrous in Tal Afar. There is crazy fighting and most families are trapped inside houses, they can't leave town," a local official said. "If the fighting continues, a mass killing among civilians could result."
In Baghdad on Sunday, a suicide attacker detonated explosives in a vest he was wearing, killing at least nine people and wounding 20 in a crowded street in the center of the capital, police and medical sources said. At least six people were killed, including three soldiers and three volunteers, when four mortars landed at a recruiting center in Khlais, 50 km (30 miles) north of Baghdad.
Volunteers were gathered by army to join fighting to regain control of the northern town of Udhaim from ISIS militants. They were some of the thousands who responded to a call by the country's most influential Shiite cleric to take up arms and defend the country against the hardline insurgents, many of whom consider Shiites as heretics.
Pictures distributed on a purported ISIS Twitter account from Salahuddin province appeared to show dozens of men lying on the ground and being shot by groups of gunmen. "This is the fate of the Shiites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis," a caption to one of the pictures reads.
Across the border, a Syrian government air raid hit near ISIS' headquarters in the eastern city of Raqqa, activists said. Raqqa, the first and only Syrian city to fall to insurgents since Syria's conflict began more than three years ago, has been a major base for ISIS since it evicted rival rebels including al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate during infighting this year.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes targeted the governorate building, a large structure in the center of town, as well as two other buildings, including a sharia, or Islamic law, court.
Images posted by ISIS supporters online showed a hole surrounded by rubble in the pavement outside the governorate building, although the date and authenticity could not be verified. It was unclear if the building itself was damaged.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
While expressing support for Iraq's government, the United States has stressed the need for a political solution to a crisis threatening to fracture the country less than three years after the U.S. military withdrawal. Secretary of State John Kerry told Iraq's foreign minister in a call on Saturday that U.S. assistance would only succeed if Iraqi leaders set aside their differences and forged the national unity needed to confront the insurgent threat.
The United States ordered an aircraft carrier moved into the Gulf on Saturday, readying it in case Washington decides to pursue a military option after insurgents overran areas in the north and advanced on Baghdad.
Oil prices have risen to the highest level this year over fears of the violence disrupting exports from OPEC member Iraq. Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby said Arab foreign ministers will discuss the "dangerous situation in Iraq" at a meeting in the Saudi city of Jeddah in the next two days.
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