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Militants capture Iraqi town near Syrian border

June 16, 2014 at 6:09 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: The crisis in Iraq continues to escalate, with reports of mass killings by Sunni extremists, as government forces lose more territory.

Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News is on the ground.

Some viewers might find elements of this report disturbing.

JONATHAN RUGMAN, ITN: This is Iraqi air force video of helicopters attacking ISIS militants outside Tal Afar. But it wasn’t enough to stop the city falling to jihadists overnight.

A city official said families have been trapped in their houses by the fighting and many people were killed. And from ISIS, another shocking video of another apparent atrocity — five Iraqi soldiers in all seen pleading for their lives in the desert.

A man identified as Jafar Zaki is ordered to swear allegiance to an Islamic state. When he refuses, the footage goes on to show that all the men are shot dead. “God is great. I killed a Shiite,” says the voice on the tape.

We can’t verify this appalling scene, nor these photos of an alleged mass execution of soldiers which appeared on the Internet yesterday. But as more volunteers flocked to Baghdad to enlist, an army spokesman said the photos were authentic, but 170 troops killed he said, not 1,700 that ISIS claimed.

BRIG. GEN. FADHIL ABDUL-SAHI, Iraqi Army (through interpreter): False news has been circulated about an exaggerated number of soldiers and volunteers killed by ISIS gangs. This news is baseless and Baghdad military operations command has denied it.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: And in this escalating spiral of violence, hundreds of thousands are believed to have fled the fighting in the last week alone. The combination of reported atrocities by Islamic militants and government airstrikes is continuing to drive Iraqis from their homes.

And with no sign of a new coalition government being formed in Baghdad, there’s no political solution either to Iraq’s widening sectarian divide. We headed into the city of Kirkuk, where Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been battling ISIS on the outskirts.

A school had been taken over by families fleeing from Tikrit, which had been fell to ISIS last week. The Mussa family saw their local mosque badly damaged by fighting.

“It’s not you we have come to hurt,” the jihadists told them, “but the Iraqi government.”

Mr. Mussa seemed terrified by both sides, so I asked him if the time had come for separate states, with Sunni and Shia apart.

MAN (through interpreter): Yes. They are getting further apart because there are so many provocations. As there are no wise elders, everyone is inflaming the situation.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The U.N. is expanding its operations here and planning for a humanitarian crisis, as evidence of atrocities continues to mount.

GWEN IFILL: The U.S. is sending additional military assets to the region. The USS Mesa Verde, a transport dock ship, entered the Persian Gulf today. It joins the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush, which moved there on Saturday.

Secretary of State John Kerry told Katie Couric of Yahoo! News this morning that the president is still considering military options. And he didn’t rule out the possibility of talks with Iran.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: We’re open to discussions if there’s something constructive that can be contributed by Iran, if Iran is prepared to do something that is going to respect the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq and the ability of the government to reform.

KATIE COURIC, Yahoo! News: Can you see cooperating with Iran militarily?

JOHN KERRY: I — at this moment, I think we need to go step by step and see what, in fact, might be a reality.

KATIE COURIC: A lot of analysts over the weekend were talking about the fact that airstrikes are not going to be effective because there are members of this organization scattered among the population at large. So what’s your response to airstrikes just aren’t the answer here?

JOHN KERRY: Well, they’re not the whole answer, 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, in trucks, and terrorizing people. I mean, when you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that.

GWEN IFILL: The administration later sought to clarify Kerry’s comments, saying there are no plans for military coordination with Iraq, but U.S. and Iranian officials may discuss the region’s security on the sidelines of unrelated nuclear talks in Vienna this week. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona said such collaboration would be — quote — “the height of folly.”

The White House said the president’s national security team will present the president with options tonight.