IRBIL, Iraq: Aided by U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes, Kurdish forces Sunday wrested back part of Iraq’s largest dam from ISIS militants who had captured it less than two weeks ago, security officials said.
The White House said President Barack Obama had informed Congress he authorized U.S. airstrikes to help retake control of the Mosul Dam, as part of his goal of protecting U.S. citizens in the country.
“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, threaten U.S. personnel and facilities – including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad – and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” it said in a statement.
Recapturing the entire Mosul Dam and the territory surrounding its reservoir would be a significant victory against ISIS. The dam on the Tigris supplies electricity and water to a large part of the country.
The Kurdish peshmerga forces launched the operation early Sunday to retake the Mosul Dam, said Gen. Tawfik Desty, a Kurdish commander, after a day of U.S. and Iraqi airstrikes pushed back ISIS fighters.
A spokesman for the peshmerga said the clashes were moving eastward. “The west is in the control of peshmerga. But there are some battles taking place in the [east] right now,” said Halgurd Hekmat.
Another commander confirmed the information, saying that by Sunday evening, peshmerga forces had crossed the Tigris to the plains held by ISIS.
The U.S. military conducted 14 airstrikes Sunday, damaging or destroying 10 armed vehicles, seven Humvees, two armored personnel carriers and one checkpoint, a statement by the Central Command said. It carried out nine airstrikes near the dam Saturday, destroying four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and another armored vehicle, the command said.
The peshmerga advance was hindered by roadside bombs and buildings rigged with explosives, planted by retreating ISIS fighters, he said.
“They have reached inside the dam. There is no fighting, just the [roadside] bombs, and the abandoned buildings are all rigged with explosives,” he said. “We will continue to advance and advance until we are given further instruction.”
The commander said the evening advance occurred after the Iraqi government delivered 16 military Humvees, at least one with a mechanized bomb-disposal unit that was dismantling the roadside explosives.
Even as they advanced around the dam in northern Iraq, the commander said fighting forces were so poorly armed that he did not believe they could hold onto captured territory without a prompt infusion of weapons, or continued U.S. airstrikes. “We don’t have the right weapons,” he added.
Troubled relations between the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad have hindered the supply of arms, leaving the Kurds overstretched and outgunned.
On another battlefront, security forces backed by Sunni Arab tribal militias made gains against ISIS jihadists in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of the provincial capital Ramadi, police said.
Fighting was also raging near the Euphrates Valley town of Haditha, located near another important dam, police Staff Maj. Gen. Ahmad Sadag said.
The rallying of more than two dozen Sunni tribes to the government side Friday marked a potential turning point in the fightback against the jihadists.
Anbar was the birthplace of the Sahwa, or Awakening, movement of Sunni tribes that from late 2006 sided with U.S. forces against Al-Qaeda, helping turn the tide against that insurgency.
ISIS fighters Friday killed around 80 Yazidi Kurds in the village of Kocho near the northwestern town of Sinjar, Kurdish officials said. ISIS militants shot scores of Yazidi men to death, lining them up in small groups and opening fire with assault rifles before abducting their wives and children, according to an eyewitness, government officials and people who live in the area.
Iraqi and Kurdish officials said at least 80 men were shot. Yazidi residents said they believed the number was higher, because there were at least 175 families in Kocho, and few were able to escape before the militants surrounded their hamlet.
Hekmat said the militants took the women and children of Kocho to a nearby city.