The United States on Sunday condemned a militant group's claim of killing 1,700 Iraqi soldiers, a denouncement that came a short time after officials said they were boosting security at the embassy in Baghdad and relocating some staff.
The claim by the Al Qaeda splinter group — the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS — that it had killed Shiite Muslim air force recruits in Tikrit en masse "is a horrifying and a true depiction of the bloodlust that these terrorists represent," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Psaki's statement said "one of the primary goals" of the group "is to set fear into the hearts of all Iraqis and drive sectarian division among its people."
The statement said the U.S. "will do its part to help Iraq move beyond this crisis," but it did not specify how. "Terrorists who can commit such heinous acts are a shared enemy of the United States, Iraq and the international community," it said.
ISIS fighters last week launched a blitz in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city and an important oil hub. The assault resulted in Iraqi army and police units running for their lives, shedding uniforms and weapons as they fled. Top Iraqi officials threatened deserters with harsh punishment, including execution.
Then on Sunday, photos purportedly documenting the attack on Tikrit were posted online, beginning with typical images of ISIS fighters atop pickup trucks and sedans raising their black banner.
More disturbing photos follow, depicting rows of men lying in shallow trenches as an ISIS fighter sprays them with gunfire. A caption boasts of "killing of the herds … that have escaped from the military bases." Other images show what are described as captured soldiers in trucks to be "taken to their deaths" as "the lions of ISIS race to devour their prey."
Amid the tense situation in Iraq, including a series of explosions Sunday that killed at least 15 in Baghdad, the United States pulled some staff members out of its embassy in Baghdad and upped security there.
“Some additional U.S. government security personnel will be added to the staff in Baghdad; other staff will be temporarily relocated” to other parts of Iraq and to Jordan, Psaki said in a statement that came earlier in the day.
The embassy is to stay operational. “A substantial majority of the U.S. Embassy presence in Iraq will remain in place and the embassy will be fully equipped to carry out its national security mission,” Psaki said.
A State Department spokeswoman refused to say how many staffers were being removed from the embassy, citing security considerations.
The State Department advised U.S. citizens to “limit travel” in Anbar, Nineveh, Salahuddin, Diyala and Tamim provinces, as well as to make contingency plans for emergencies and to be cautious and aware.
Americans in Iraq should register with the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program for updates, the department said.
The U.S. military is providing some additional security, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement: “A small number of [Defense Department] personnel are augmenting State Department security assets in Baghdad to help ensure the safety of our facilities. The temporary relocation of some embassy personnel is being facilitated aboard commercial, charter and State Department aircraft as appropriate. The U.S. military has airlift assets at the ready should State Department request them, as per normal inter-agency support arrangements.”
"The United States strongly supports Iraq and its people as they face security challenges from violent extremists," the State Department statement said. "The people of Iraq have repeatedly rejected violent extremism and expressed their desire to build a better society for themselves and for their children."