WASHINGTON/BAGHDAD: President Barack Obama said Monday that the U.S. had embarked on a long-term mission to defeat ISIS insurgents fighting in Iraq after Kurdish peshmerga forces wrested back control of the country’s largest dam.
Ten days after ordering airstrikes against the jihadist fighters, Obama warned that ISIS remained a threat to Iraq and the wider region, telling Baghdad “the wolf is at the door.”
Previously, Obama had been at pains to describe U.S. operation as limited but, as American jets pounded ISIS positions outside Mosul, he said the operation would form part of a broader political strategy.
“We will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against [ISIS] by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region,” he said.
Obama repeated his support for new Iraqi premier Haidar al-Abadi’s attempts to form a more inclusive government, but warned he must act quickly to undermine support for the radicals.
“I was impressed in my conversation with him [Abadi] about his vision for an inclusive government but they’ve got to get this done because the wolf’s at the door,” he told reporters.
“In order for them to be credible with the Iraqi people, they’re going to have to put behind them some of the old practices and actually create a credible united government.
“Our goal is to have effective partners on the ground. And if we have effective partners on the ground, mission creep is much less likely,” promising a joint “counter-terrorism” strategy with Iraq and U.S. allies.
Obama said the peshmerga had recaptured Mosul dam from ISIS after two days of fierce clashes. Had the dam been breached, it could have had catastrophic consequences and endangered U.S. Embassy personnel in Baghdad, he said.
U.S. fighter, bomber and drone aircraft took part in strikes on ISIS positions near the dam, the Pentagon said. The strikes damaged or destroyed six armed vehicles, a light armored vehicle and other equipment.
Iraqi army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said early Monday that the Iraqi and Kurdish forces “hoisted the Iraqi flag over” the dam. At least 170 bombs have been dismantled around the dam but many more remain, Moussawi also said in a televised statement. He added that militants had fled to areas near the south of the dam complex, and were hiding in homes and offices on the premises.Iraq’s Defense Ministry said security forces “liberated a large part of the Mosul Dam” with the help of U.S. airstrikes, adding that forces were working to free the entire complex.
However, ISIS denied the claims, insisting it was still in control of the facility. In an online statement, ISIS earlier denied losing control of the dam, dismissing the government claim as “mere propaganda war.” The statement, which could not be independently verified, was posted on a website frequently used by the militants.
The apparent retaking of the dam marks the first major victory for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Islamic militants since U.S. airstrikes began earlier this month.
The dam and its broader complex hold great strategic value, as they supply electricity and water to a large part of the country.
The U.S. launched airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq more than a week ago in a bid to halt its advance across the north.
The U.S. and France have agreed to arm Kurdish fighters, with the U.S. providing light weapons and ammunition. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius refused to specify the type of arms France would deliver, saying only that they would be “sophisticated.” The British and German governments have also stated their willingness to supply the Kurds with weapons.
The dam’s seizure by ISIS militants on Aug. 7 was part of a string of victories by the radical group, which seemed to be expanding its hold in northern Iraq, driving back Kurdish forces, sending minority communities fleeing and unleashing a wave of violence over a territory straddling the Syria-Iraq border.
ISIS has warned the United States it will attack Americans “in any place” if the raids hit its militants.
In a video, which shows a photograph of an American who was beheaded during the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the group issued a statement that said in English: “We will drown all of you in blood.”