U.S. Warplanes, Kurdish Forces Pound ISIS Targets in Bid to Retake Iraqi Dam
Baghdad (CNN) — Kurdish forces fired mortars and explosives at extremist militants Sunday as the battle to retake a strategic dam in northern Iraq raged on.
Fighters for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria set up high powered explosives around buildings and detonated them, Kurdish Intelligence chief Masrour Barzani said.
Kurdish forces fought back, sparking clashes. Smoke could be seen rising in the distance.
ISIS, the extremist militant group that calls itself the Islamic State, seized the strategic Mosul Dam this month.
U.S. warplanes joined the effort to retake the dam amid growing concern it is not maintained and could rupture, a U.S. official told CNN.
Engineering studies show that a failure of the dam would be catastrophic, resulting in flooding all the way to Baghdad, the official said on condition of anonymity.
Mosul Dam is Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam, and it sits on the Tigris Rivers about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of the city of Mosul. ISIS fighters seized it this month following fierce fighting.
The United States estimates there may be up to 400 ISIS fighters in and around the dam complex, the official said.
The U.S. military confirmed a mix of fighter jets and drones carried out nine airstrikes near Mosul and the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil. The strikes targeted armored vehicles used by ISIS fighters, it said.
U.S. Central Command declined to provide further details, citing security of its personnel.
There were conflicting reports from Kurdish officials about whether its military force, known as the Peshmerga, had begun a ground operation to retake the dam.
Mosul Dam remains in hands of ISIS
A Peshmerga colonel told CNN the operation began early Saturday with Kurdish forces advancing toward the dam as the United States carried out airstrikes against “mobile ISIS positions.”
The dam complex has not been hit, the colonel said on condition of anonymity. He is not authorized to speak to the media.
While Peshmerga spokesman Hilgurd Hikmat also confirmed the U.S. airstrikes, he said the Kurdish forces are not on the move and have not engaged in battle with ISIS fighters near the dam.
Mosul Dam is under ISIS control, but it is still up and running, the colonel said. Engineers and employees remain at work, he said.
U.S. intelligence agencies, according to the U.S. official, are also keeping an eye on the Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River in Iraq’s western Anbar province, where Iraqi troops have been holding off an ISIS assault for weeks. The dam is the second-largest in the country, and it provides water to western and southern Iraq.
Earlier this year, ISIS fighters opened the gates on the Falluja dam after seizing it in an effort to stop an Iraqi military advance. The water from the dam flooded a number of small villages.
U.S. President Barack Obama ordered targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq and prevent a potential genocide of ethnic and religious minority groups by ISIS.
Obama — citing the success of targeted American airstrikes — declared an end to an ISIS siege that had trapped tens of thousands of Yazidis in mountains.
The Yazidis are one of Iraq’s smallest and oldest religious minorities.
The United Nations estimates they are among 400,000 people who’ve been driven from their homes since June, when ISIS swept across the border from Syria into Iraq.
Jomana Karadsheh reported from Baghdad, Barbara Starr from Washington and Faith Karimi reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Anna Coren, Mohammed Tawfeeq and Mariano Castillo contributed to this report.