Kerry in Iraq as Sunni militants seize strategic town, crossing

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the latter's office in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad Monday to push for stability, as Sunni militants seized
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (left) meets with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki at the latter's office in Baghdad on June 23, 2014. US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad Monday to push for stability, as Sunni militants seized a strategic town and a border crossing, tightening their grip on north and west Iraq. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

BAGHDAD (AFP) - US Secretary of State John Kerry was in Baghdad Monday to push for stability, as Sunni militants seized a strategic town and a border crossing, tightening their grip on north and west Iraq.

Flying in from Jordan, Kerry met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders to urge a speeding up of the government formation process in order to face down the insurgents.

During their talks, Mr Maliki told Washington's top diplomat that the crisis "represents a threat not only to Iraq but to regional and international peace," his office said.

Iraqi security forces are struggling to hold their ground in the face of an insurgent onslaught that has seized major areas of five provinces, displaced hundreds of thousands of people and sparked fears that the country could be torn apart.

Mr Maliki's security spokesman said Monday that "hundreds" of Iraqi soldiers have been killed since the insurgents, led by the powerful jihadist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), launched their offensive on June 9.

The announcement on television by Lieutenant General Qassem Atta is the most specific information provided so far by the government on losses sustained by the security forces.

The militants continued their charge on Monday, overrunning the Al-Waleed border crossing with Syria, officers said. The capture of the post means that official crossings with Iraq's neighbour to the west are outside government control.

The seizure of Al-Waleed also increases the militants' ability to bring men and materiel across the border from Syria.

Insurgents also overran the strategic Shiite-majority northern town of Tal Afar and its airport, a local official and witnesses said Monday.

"The town of Tal Afar and the airport... are completely under the control of the militants," the official said on condition of anonymity.

Witnesses said security forces had departed the town after days of heavy fighting, and confirmed that militants were in control.

Atta said that security forces were still fighting in the Tal Afar area, but added that: "Even if we withdrew from Tal Afar or any other area, this does not mean that it is a defeat." The town, which is located along a strategic corridor to Syria, had been the largest in the northern province of Nineveh not to fall to militants.

The latest advances came after insurgents at the weekend swept into the towns of Rawa and Ana in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, after taking the Al-Qaim border crossing with Syria.

The government said its forces made a "tactical" withdrawal from the towns, control of which allows the militants to widen a strategic route to neighbouring Syria where they also hold swathes of countryside along the Euphrates river valley.