BAGHDAD — Iraq's military appeared to regain some of its footing Sunday even as a string of explosions killed at least 15 in Baghdad and the Islamic militant group that captured two major cities last week posted graphic photos that appear to show its fighters massacring dozens of captured Iraqi soldiers.
The pictures on a militant website show what look to be masked fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) loading the captives onto flatbed trucks before forcing them to lie face-down in a shallow ditch with their arms tied behind their backs. The bodies of the captives are then shown, soaked in blood after being shot.
The Associated Press said the images were verified and were consistent with its reporting. Iraq's top military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, confirmed the authenticity of the photos Sunday and said he was aware of cases of mass murder of Iraqi soldiers.
Meanwhile, a string of explosions in Baghdad killed at least 15 and wounded more than 30 on Sunday. A car bomb early Sunday killed 10 and wounded 21 in the city center. After nightfall, another explosion went off in the area, killing two and wounding five. A third blast hit near a falafel shop in the Sadr City district, killing three and wounding seven.
The news came as insurgents advanced on the northwest of the country, with a raid on a strategic town close to the Syrian border, where the Iraqi military repelled the assault, military officials said.
Fierce fighting erupted in the early morning hours in Tal Afer, about 30 miles west of Mosul, and the only larger town in Nineveh province not under control by ISIL.
"The army with the help of residents of the city managed to stop the attack on the city," said Qassim Atta, spokesman for the Iraqi military.
Military officials said army helicopters destroyed 50 cars full of ISIL fighters Sunday, adding it also killed 279 "terrorists" in the past 24 hours.
Residents who fought against the militants described a chaotic scene.
"The ISIL attacked the town from four directions but we were ready to fight back," said Mohamad Ahmad, a resident of Tal Afer. "We endured for hours, they came in big numbers and we fought along with Iraqi army to protect the city."
Tal Afer is strategic city and ISIL considers it key to their plan to create an Islamic state spanning Iraq and Syria.
After stunning gains last week including two provincial capitals, Mosul and Tikrit, the advance toward Baghdad was slowed about 30 miles away from the capital with Iraqi commanders saying their forces were now starting to push the militants back, and that soldiers had recaptured two towns north of Baghdad.
The crisis prompted Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Saturday to order the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush and two other shops into the Persian Gulf as the U.S. weighs options for responding to the situation as some Congressmen call for airstrikes.
Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House intelligence committee and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., argued Sunday on Fox News and CBS, respectively, that the insurgents' success will create a safe haven for planning terrorist activity against the U.S.
While talking on CNN's State of the Union, Graham said the U.S. should engage in talks with Iran to negotiate a settlement in Iraq.
"The Iranians can provide some assets to make sure Baghdad doesn't fall. We need to coordinate with the Iranians," he said.
In Tikrit, Iraqi troops made their way to a military camp north of the city in an attempt to regroup and retake it. A senior Iraqi officer said they have stopped the movement of militants in the city and are awaiting orders to retake all of Tikrit. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
In Mosul, life started returning to normal, residents reported as ISIL removed checkpoints and reopened roads. But residents worried over instructions from militants dictating behavior, saying the directives encroached on their personal freedoms.
"These oblige women to wear loose clothing and only to leave home when absolutely necessary," said Busra Mohammed, 34, a teacher there. "We reject such instructions that want to take us back hundreds of years because they are incompatible with the rights of women and an insult to their dignity."
Contributing: John Bacon, Martha T. Moore, USA TODAY; Associated Press