June 16, 2014 8:20 pm

What you need to know about the situation in Iraq

Watch above: The situation is so dire that old enemies, the U.S. and Iran, are mulling cooperation to deal with the situation. Eric Sorensen reports.

Iraq wasn’t the most stable country before militants began taking over key cities in a violent sweep towards Baghdad. But the advancement of a highly organized Islamist group has put the country’s future in peril.

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The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria or ISIS – is not only making a push to take over parts of Iraq and Syria to establish a Sunni Muslim state, it’s furthering a sectarian divide in the Shiite-led county.

ISIL’s vicious advances in Iraq, carried out with shocking speed and little opposition, is fostering partnerships between strange geopolitical bedfellows: the U.S. and Iran.

What’s the latest on ISIL?

On Monday, ISIL pushed closer to the Syrian border and captured the city of Tal Afar. With a population of about 200,000, Tal Afar is largely populated by Turkomen, who are both Sunni and Shiite — the Muslim majority in Iraq.

Tal Afar is just 70 kilometres west of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, which ISIL seized last week. It’s yet another key location for the jihadist group that has been mowing through predominantly Sunni areas in north and east of the country.

The BBC reported eyewitnesses said ISIL fighter arrived before dawn in pickup trucks, with machine guns mounted on them.

READ MORE: Key Iraqi city captured by Sunni militants near Syrian border

How bad is the situation?

On Sunday ISIL claimed it had executed 1,700 air force recruits near the city of Tikrit – the hometown of executed former ruler Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. Those numbers haven’t been confirmed. But, regardless of the death toll, it’s widely accepted that ISIL carried out what the UN called a “systematic series of cold-blooded executions.”

The group posted multiple photos online that appeared to depict Shiite soldiers in plainclothes in various states of capture or execution, some standing near what looked like a mass grave.

READ MORE: Militants post images of Iraqi soldiers lined up and shot

The Iraqi army is carrying out an offensive to stop advance, and the Iraqi army claims airstrikes have reportedly killed at least 279 ISIL fighters.

The Iraqi government claims it has managed to retake three areas in Salahuddin province, the capital of which is Tikrit, but “there was no clear evidence” to support that claim, according to the New York Times.

How dangerous is it in Baghdad?

ISIL was reportedly within just 97 kilometres of Baghdad by Sunday, but has not advanced further toward the capital. The close proximity of the militant group has led some Baghdadis to prepare for the worst.

Foreign government’s don’t appear to be taking any chances, either.

Canada’s diplomat in Baghdad has already left the country over security concerns. Foreign Affairs confirmed the acting charge d’affaires Stephanie Duhaime left the country Saturday. Canada’s Iraqi embassy s actually based in Jordan’s capital city Amman.

The U.S., Australia and the United Nations have all evacuated some staff from the Iraqi capital.

The threat of a further ISIL invasion has also spurred some residents to join Shiite militias and prepare to fight the insurgents.

READ MORE: Thousands of Iraqis answer call to arms as U.S. warship sails to Gulf

Is the U.S. going to work with Iran to stop ISIL?

The U.S. has indicated it may discuss with Iran how to deal with ISIL, but won’t cooperate militarily with the Shiite Islamic state, which has offered its help to Iraq.

While relations between the two countries are better than they’ve been in decades – U.S. President Barack Obama had a brief phone conversation with newly-elected Iranian President Hassan Rouhani following the annual meeting of the General Assembly in September – they’re far from allies.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday he “wouldn’t rule out anything that would be constructive to providing real stability.”

READ MORE: White House contemplates sending US special forces to Iraq

“We’re open to discussions if there is 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 ability of the government to reform,” he told Katie Couric in the Yahoo News interview.

“When the U.S. takes action against [the militants], then one can think about cooperation,” The Associated Press reported Rouhani saying at a press conference in Tehran on Saturday. “Until today, no specific request for help has been demanded. But we are ready to help within international law.”

The United States said later Monday it would deploy up to 275 military troops to Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other American interests and is considering sending a contingent of special forces soldiers, The Associated Press. But the White House insisted anew the U.S. would not be sending combat troops and thrusting America into a new Iraq war.

The Canadian government said Monday would not send military support to assist with the situation, but Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Canada is “committed to working with the Iraqi leadership.”

“I should point out that Canada has not been asked to participate in any military effort, nor is it something we are considering,” Baird said during Question Period.

READ MORE: Canada rules out military aid in Iraq, diplomat exits post

With files from The Associated Press

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