, BAGHDAD, June 17- Militants battled Iraqi security forces for control of a strategic northern town on Monday, prompting half the area’s population to flee, as Washington weighed drone strikes against jihadist fighters.
The United States and Iran briefly discussed the week-long crisis on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna as the arch foes mulled their “shared interest” in preventing Sunni insurgents from gaining a foothold in Iraq.
Jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) 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, Sunni Arab militants took control of several neighbourhoods of Tal Afar, a mainly Shiite Turkmen town between the rebel held second city of Mosul and the Syrian border, officials and residents said.
Local official Abdulal Abbas 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.
The town, which forms a Shiite enclave in otherwise Sunni Arab and Kurdish-dominated Nineveh province, had initially held off the offensive that saw fighters led by ISIL seize Mosul a city of two million people and then a vast swathe of territory north of Baghdad in a matter of days.
– Drones an option –
As Washington weighed its next move in the crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Monday that drone strikes could be used, after President Barack Obama said he was considering “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”.
About 275 US military personnel were being deployed to Iraq to help American personnel and protect the embassy in Baghdad, Obama said.