BAGHDAD: ISIS fighters seized control of Iraq’s biggest dam, an oil field and three more towns Sunday, state TV reported, after inflicting their first major defeat on Kurdish forces since sweeping across much of northern Iraq in June.
Capture of the electricity-generating Mosul Dam, after an offensive of barely 24 hours, could give the Sunni militants the ability to flood major Iraqi cities or withhold water from farms, raising the stakes in their bid to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
“The terrorist gangs of the Islamic State have taken control of Mosul Dam after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces without a fight,” said Iraqi state television.
However, Jabar Yawer, the spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga troops, said late Sunday that Kurdish forces were still in control of the dam, emphasizing that ISIS had not been successful in an attempted takeover.
But two people who live near Mosul Dam told Reuters Kurdish troops had loaded their vehicles with belongings, including air conditioners, and fled.
The apparent swift withdrawal of the peshmerga was a severe blow to one of the only forces in Iraq that until now had stood firm against the fighters who aim to redraw the borders of the Middle East.
ISIS seized the Ain Zalah oil field Sunday – adding to four others already under its control that provide funding for operations.
Initially strong Kurdish resistance evaporated after the start of a weekend offensive to take the town of Zumar.
ISIS fighters attacked Zumar from three directions in pickup trucks mounted with weapons, defeating Kurdish forces that had poured reinforcements into the town, witnesses said. The Islamists then hoisted their black flags there.
The group later also seized the town of Sinjar, where witnesses said residents had fled after Kurdish fighters put up little resistance. It was not immediately clear why the Kurds, usually known as formidable fighters, pulled back without a fight.
On its Twitter site, ISIS posted a picture of one of its masked fighters holding up a pistol and sitting at the abandoned desk of the mayor of Sinjar. Behind him was the image of a famous Kurdish guerrilla leader.
In a statement on its website, the jihadists said they had killed scores of peshmerga. Those deaths could not be independently verified.
“Hundreds fled leaving vehicles and a huge number of weapons and munitions and the brothers control many areas,” the Islamic State statement said. “The fighters arrived in the border triangle between Iraq, Syria and Turkey.”
Sinjar had sheltered thousands of people who were displaced when the huge ISIS offensive was launched nearly two months ago. Among them are many of Iraq’s minorities, such as Turkmen Shiites who fled the city of Tal Afar, about halfway between Sinjar and Mosul, when jihadist fighters swept in.
Sinjar is also a historical home for the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority that follows a pre-Islamic faith rooted in Zoroastrianism, and has been repeatedly targeted.
“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” the top U.N. envoy in Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, said. Its capture prompted thousands of families – up to 200,000 people, according to the U.N. – to flee, many of them into the neighboring mountains.
“The United Nations has grave concerns for the physical safety of these civilians,” Mladenov said, as they risk being stranded with no supplies in roasting temperatures and surrounded by jihadists.
A Kurdish official and several other sources also said ISIS fighters had destroyed the Shiite shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab after taking control of Sinjar.
Witnesses said ISIS fighters were also trying to take control of the town of Rabia near the Syrian border and were engaged in clashes with Syrian Kurds who had crossed the frontier after Iraqi Kurds withdrew.
Iraq’s Kurds had expanded areas under their control in recent weeks, while avoiding direct confrontation with ISIS, even as Iraqi central government troops fled. But the towns lost on Sunday were in territory the Kurds had held for many years, undermining suggestions that ISIS’ advance helped the Kurds.
By calling into question the effectiveness of the Kurdish fighters, Sunday’s advances may increase pressure on bickering Iraqi leaders to form a power-sharing government capable of countering the Islamic State.
The latest gains have also placed ISIS fighters near Dahuk Province, one of three in the autonomous Kurdish region that has been spared any serious threat to its security while war raged throughout the rest of Iraq.
Meanwhile Sunday, military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said clashes were continuing between Iraqi security forces and militants to retake the town of Jurf al-Sakhar, which fell to Sunni insurgents last week.
Moussawi said a number of airstrikes had hit the militants in the center of the town, though he did not offer casualty figures. Dozens of militants and nine troops were killed Saturday in clashes in Jurf al-Sakhar, located some 50 kilometers south of the capital.