IRBIL, Iraq – Iraqi and Kurdish troops, backed by heavy U.S. air support, recaptured Iraq’s largest dam Monday, the most significant victory over the Islamic State since the militants overran almost half of Iraq in mid-June.
It remained to be seen whether the Iraqi military, which all but collapsed as the Islamic State staged its lightning advance to the doorstep of Baghdad, can capitalize on the first serious setback dealt to the extremists. The Iraqi army remains burdened by serious deficiencies, the country’s sectarian politicians have yet to form a new government and President Obama made it clear again Monday that there are limits to U.S. military intervention.
“I have been firm from the start that we are not reintroducing thousands of U.S. troops back on the ground to engage in combat. We’re not the Iraqi military, we’re not even the Iraqi air force,” Obama said at White House news conference. Iraq must “ultimately provide for its own security,” he said
At the same time, he hailed the recapture of the Mosul Dam.
“If that dam was breached, it could have proven catastrophic, with floods that would’ve threatened the lives of thousands of civilians and endanger our embassy compound in Baghdad,” Obama said. “This operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL,” the U.S. government’s preferred acronym for the Islamic State, which also is called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Obama said there had been important strides in Iraq in recent weeks as the United States conducted airstrikes across the nation.
“We will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region and beyond,” Obama said. “There should be no doubt that the United States military will continue to carry the limited missions that I’ve authorized, protecting our personnel and facilities in Iraq in both Irbil and Baghdad and providing humanitarian support.”
Officials of the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the Kurdish security forces claimed that the dam, which controls the agricultural water supply to most of northern Iraq and generates Mosul’s electricity, was under the control of the joint Iraqi-Kurdish force, although the dam itself had to be cleared of booby traps and mines left behind by retreating fighters from the Islamic State, an al-Qaida offshoot that recently declared itself an Islamic caliphate.
“We control the facility but the facility is not secure and Daash is retreating,” said one security official with the Kurdish peshmerga militia, who used the pejorative Arabic acronym for the group.
In Washington, the Pentagon said that while the dam is no longer under Islamic State control, there remain pockets of resistance within the dam complex, leaving officials stopping short of saying it is under Kurdish control. Rather, Pentagon officials believe that Kurdish officials are conducting a mop-up on the site of remnants of Islamic State control. Pentagon officials note that while Obama said that militants no longer control the dam, he stopped short of saying that Kurdish officials do.
An Iraqi defense official speaking by phone from Baghdad was more specific, claiming that the dam and the hydroelectric facility had been recaptured in a joint operation between the peshmerga and the Iraq special forces unit known as the Golden Brigade, which has been supported by at least 35 U.S. airstrikes by a combination of drones, long-range bomber aircraft and aircraft carrier-based fighter-bombers. A Pentagon press statement Monday said the U.S. military had conducted 68 strikes on Islamic State targets, around Irbil, the dam and near the western city of Sinjar, which also fell to the militants on Aug. 7, sending tens of thousands of residents fleeing.
“U.S. advisers are on the scene with the Golden Brigade helping coordinate the airstrikes,” the Iraqi official said on the condition of anonymity. “They have done great damage to Daash and the momentum is with us as they retreat back towards Mosul.”