BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of residents are fleeing Tal Afar (tahl AH'-fur) in northern Iraq after Sunni militants captured the city today.

Tal Afar is a key prize for the militants, as they try to link areas under their control on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border. It is strategically located on the main highway between the border and Mosul, which the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant captured last week.

Tal Afar's population of 200,000 is dominated by ethnic Turkomen, who are both Sunni and Shiite. That's raising fears of new atrocities by Islamic State fighters, who brand Shiites as heretics.

Iraqi security officials say U.S. aircraft have been flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq in recent days to gather intelligence on where the militants are.

Secretary of State John Kerry says American drone strikes are an option, in the effort to stop the dramatic sweep by the insurgents. He also told Yahoo! News that the Obama administration is willing to talk with Iran about how to stop the rampage.

Already, the commander of an elite Iranian force is in Iraq, consulting with officials there.