Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes battled Saturday to retake Iraq’s largest dam from Islamist militants, while American warplanes also struck targets near the Kurdish capital of Erbil.
The Mosul dam fell under control of militants from the Islamic State organisation (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL), earlier this month, leading to fears the Sunni Islamists could flood cities and cut off vital water and electricity supplies.
But Kurdish forces Saturday wrested at least partial control of the dam back from IS on Saturday, a general told AFP.
“Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam” complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.
After the Islamic State’s capture of the northern city of Mosul in June, its swift push to the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan alarmed Baghdad and last week drew the first US air strikes on Iraq since the withdrawal of US troops in 2011.
As well as supporting the Kurds’ attack on Mosul dam, the US said it also conducted air strikes against IS fighters near the Kurdish capital of Erbil Saturday.
“The nine air strikes conducted thus far destroyed or damaged four armoured personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armored vehicle,” the US Central Command said in a statement.
It said the strikes were conducted with a mix of fighters and drones, adding: “All aircraft exited the strike areas safely.”
Kurds claw back ground lost to IS
When jihadist forces began their Iraq offensive on June 9, Kurdish peshmerga forces initially fared better than retreating federal soldiers, but the US-made weaponry abandoned by government troops turned IS into an even more formidable foe.
They were able to sweep through the Sunni Arab heartland north and west of Baghdad in early June, encountering little effective resistance.
But buoyed by the air strikes US President Barack Obama ordered last week, the peshmerga have tried to claw back the ground they lost to IS since the start of August.
The dam on the Tigris provides electricity to much of the region and is crucial to irrigation in vast farming areas in Nineveh province.
Recapturing Mosul dam would be one of the most significant achievements in a fightback that is also getting international material support, with EU foreign ministers last week encouraging the bloc’s member countries to send arms to the Kurds.
The assault on the dam came a day after IS militants were accused of a “massacre” of civilians belonging to the Yazidi religious minority at a village in northern Iraq.
The Pentagon announced that US drones had struck an IS convoy leaving the village on Friday after receiving reports that residents were under attack.
A siege of Yazidis in the Sinjar area of Iraq by IS fighters was one reason Washington cited for air strikes it began against IS on August 8.
Obama declared the Mount Sinjar siege over on Thursday, but vulnerable civilians remain in areas taken by the jihadists.
Human rights groups and residents say IS fighters have demanded that villagers in the Sinjar area convert or leave, unleashing violent reprisals on any who refused.
Amnesty International, which has been documenting mass abductions in the Sinjar area, says ISIS has kidnapped thousands of Yazidis since it launched its offensive in the region on August 3.
Members of the Christian, Turkmen and other minorities have also been affected by the violence.