IRBIL, Iraq — The Islamic State pursued aggressive offensives on two new fronts Sunday as its militants defeated Kurdish troops along a key front protecting a major dam, while in Lebanon its fighters attacked a series of army posts along the border with Syria sparking the worst spill over of fighting into Lebanon since the start of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Both fronts, which has previously been limited to small scale clashes between local security forces and fighters from the Islamic State, began on Saturday as it appeared the newly announced Islamic caliphate was pushing to expand on both its eastern and western borders into new territory, the first such expansion into new territory since it took over much of northern and central Iraq and merged it with previously held territory in eastern Syria to form a caliphate announced by the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, on June 29.
After repelling an attack by militants on Saturday, Kurdish troops in Zummar, a small village adjacent to Mosul Dam, the largest in northern Iraq, were overrun Sunday and local media reported that the dam itself had fallen later in the evening.
A Kurdish intelligence official, who cannot speak on the record about security matters, confirmed that Zummar and the western Iraqi town of Sinjar had fallen to the Islamic State on Sunday but denied that the dam, which controls most of the agricultural water flow in northern Iraq and has been described by officials in the past as poorly maintained, had fallen to the radicals.
“The Mosul Dam remains secure, the propaganda reports from the Baghdad television stations are just trying to cause panic,” he said. “We are moving reinforcements into the area and will begin an operation to retake these lost villages and possibly confront the terrorists with an attack on Mosul in the coming days.”
The loss of the dam would not only puts the Islamic State in control of one of Iraq’s largest supplies of water, but could also flood most of the neighboring provinces should the levee break, a realistic concern according to one expert.
“That dam is a nightmare,” said a security consultant for a western oil company with operations in northern Iraq. “It’s poorly maintained and while it doesn’t control drinking water, it does put all of the irrigation water from here to Baghdad in the hands of Daash. And if it failed, the flooding would be catastrophic.”
The strategic loss of Zummar and possibly the Mosul Dam was compounded by a potential humanitarian catastrophe as the radical rebels also overran the town of Sinjar, home to large population of Yezidis, a religious minority considered heretics by the group’s austere brand of Islam. Hundreds of Yezidis could be seen on social media fleeing the area in an attempt to cross the northern Iraqi desert during brutal summer temperatures, which often reach 120 degrees, for the safety of the Kurdish region.
The quick collapse of the peshmerga garrisons in such a strategic area immediately raised questions in the Kurdish capital of Irbil about the competence of the widely respected forces, who are faced with patrolling a 900 mile border with the nascent Islamic caliphate. Residents of Irbil were visibly nervous Sunday as information of the defeat broke throughout the city.
“Daash is just 50 kilometers away,” said Abu Saaed, using the Arabic term nearly everyone in Iraq calls the Islamic State. “The peshmerga are good fighters and tough but they have to protect us,” even as authorities vowed that a counterattack was being planned and heavy weapons, including tanks and artillery, could be seen being gathered outside of Irbil’s airport on the outskirts of town.
The Kurdish Defense Ministry said that 14 fighters were killed on Saturday but did not release any numbers for the clashes on Sunday. A twitter account associated with the Islamic State Sunday said that it had killed scores of the Kurdish fighters and seized significant amounts of military hardware.
"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."
Witnesses in the area reached by Reuters confirmed that large numbers of Kurdish fighters had fled from Sinjar shortly after the fall of Zummar.
In another situation hundreds of miles away that highlights the increasing regional reach of the Islamic State, the arrest of one of the group’s commanders by Lebanese security forces drew what appeared to be hundreds of fighters from Islamist rebel groups fighting in the nearby Syrian mountains for widespread fighting around the Lebanese city of Aarsal, a hotbed of support for the Syrian revolution.
A motley assortment of rebel groups including the al Qaida linked Nusra Front, the Islamic State and other smaller local groups have been battling both the Syrian Army and its staunched Shiite Muslim ally, Hezbollah, in the Syrian mountains along the Lebanese border for months, and clashes have occasionally spilled over into Lebanon’s adjacent Beqaa Valley, a major base of support for the group.
But after the arrest of Imad Jumaa, who leads an Islamist rebel group loyal to the Islamic State on Saturday, the already tense region exploded into violence as hundreds of loyal gunmen appeared in and around the Sunni city of Aarsal and overran the local police station taking a reported 16 members of the local security forces hostage. Lebanese authorities quickly reinforced the local army checkpoints in the heavily patrolled area – which often serves as an illegal crossing point for the Sunni rebels, who often clash with their sectarian and military rivals in Hezbollah – with a special forces unit after three soldiers were killed in sniper attacks on checkpoints.
But by Sunday morning, fighting had broken out throughout the area as fighters from local Sunni tribes, the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and other rebel groups clashed with the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah in a series of running gun and artillery battles that sent much of the civilian population in the area into a panicked flight for safer areas.
Lebanese television showed images of the local army base on fire after being overrun by militants, although Army Commander Jean Kahwaji said the facility has been retaken by special forces shortly afterward. Kahwaji also told local reporters in a press conference that the fighting actually was a long-planned operation by the Islamic State to expand into Lebanon.
"What happened is far more dangerous than some believe," Kahwaji told reporters in Beirut, saying the arrested commander had admitted to planning a large attack against army positions. "The terrorist attack which occurred yesterday was not an attack by chance or coincidence. It was planned previously, a long time ago, awaiting the appropriate time," he said.
By Sunday night the army was reporting it had killed scores of militants with 11 soldiers killed, although local media said that figure had risen to 15 soldiers killed with dozens wounded and at least 13 missing and suspected captured by the rebels. If confirmed, that would bring the number of Lebanese security forces held by the militants to 29.
Hezbollah rarely announces casualties in a timely manner, but had said that seven of its fighters had been killed on the Syrian side of the border in fighting with the same rebels before they moved into Lebanon. A Hezbollah commander reached by instant messaging in Beirut confirmed the group was fighting alongside the army, in large part, because the fighting is close to the major Shiite towns of Labweh, Baalbak, and Hermel, where many Hezbollah fighters and their families live.
“We will always fight to protect Lebanon and our community,” he said.