Iraq says it has “regained the initiative” against militants who seized vast swathes of territory, as former UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi blamed the crisis on global neglect of Syria’s civil war.
Washington responded to the sweeping unrest by deploying an aircraft carrier group to the Gulf, but Iran has warned against foreign military intervention in its Shi’ite neighbour, voicing confidence that Baghdad can repel the onslaught.
The militants, spearheaded by the powerful Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) jihadist group, have overrun all of one province and chunks of three more since launching their offensive late Monday.
Security forces have generally performed poorly, with some abandoning vehicles and positions and discarding their uniforms, though they seem to be recovering from the initial onslaught and have started to regain ground.
Iraqi officers have said their forces were now starting to repel the militants, and that soldiers had recaptured two towns north of Baghdad.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s security spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassem Atta, said during a televised news conference on Sunday that Baghdad’s forces have “regained the initiative” and killed 279 “terrorists” in the past 24 hours.
Officials added that security forces and tribal fighters repelled a militant assault in the strategic town of Tal Afar near the Syrian border.
It provides a critical corridor for militants to access conflict-hit Syria.
Ten people were killed in militant shelling of the town, and 18 anti-government fighters also died in ensuing clashes.
As Iraqi troops began to drive back the militants, they found grisly scenes, amid reports of summary executions of Iraqi security forces members the militants captured.
Troops found the burned bodies of 12 policemen as they recaptured the town of Ishaqi in Salaheddin province, a police colonel and a doctor said.
Photos posted online were also said to show militants summarily executing dozens of captured members of the security forces in the province.
The situation on the ground has been further complicated as forces from the autonomous Kurdish region have made territorial advances.
Meanwhile, Iran warned Sunday that “any foreign military intervention in Iraq” would only complicate the crisis, voicing confidence that Baghdad “has the capacity and necessary preparations for the fight against terrorism”.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Saturday said Iraq had not asked for its help.
But in surprise comments he added that Iran may “think about” cooperating with its arch-foe the United States to fight the militants in Iraq.
Senator Lindsay Graham, a Republican critic of the American president, also called for direct engagement with Tehran, warning that the unrest in Iraq would give extremists a staging area for “the next 9/11”.