IRBIL, Iraq — Iraqi and Kurdish troops, backed by heavy U.S. air support, Monday recaptured Iraq’s largest dam, 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 Barack 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. “I am the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and Iraq is gonna have to ultimately provide for its own security.”
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 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 from both the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the Kurdish security forces claimed that the dam, which controls the agricultural water supply to most of northern Iraq as well as Mosul’s electric generation capacity, was under the control of the joint Iraqi-Kurdish force, although the facility itself had to be cleared of booby-traps and mines left behind by retreating fighters from the Islamic State, a rogue 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 derogatory 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 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.
“We are in the final phase of this operation,” a senior defense official told McClatchy; the official was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
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 from a combination of drones, long-range bomber aircraft and aircraft carrier-based fighter-bombers. A Pentagon press statement Monday said that the U.S. military had conducted 68 strikes total 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 to a local mountain range for safety.
“U.S. advisers are on the scene with the Golden Brigade helping coordinate the airstrikes,” the Iraqi official said, not giving his name in accordance with an agreed media blackout on the issue. “They have done great damage to Daash and the momentum is with us as they retreat back towards Mosul.”
According to U.S. Central Command, it has conducted 68 airstrikes since the operation began; of those 38 occurred around the Mosul Dam.
A Western diplomatic source in Irbil, who did not have permission from their government to speak publicly, confirmed the claim that U.S. advisers from the hundreds of special operations troops sent to Iraq to advise on operations were present at the fighting but not technically engaged in direct combat.
“Close air support is tricky enough for professionals under normal circumstances,” the official who had been briefed on the operation said. “So we can’t let peshmerga and Iraqi SF, who have no experience coordinating with fast-moving strike aircraft, try and coordinate with airstrikes at a facility so delicate as a hydroelectric dam that could flood most of Iraq under meters of water if it were to fail.”
Pentagon officials, however, refused to confirm the presence of ground troops, even in small numbers as specialists at the scene. But it has said hundreds of special operations troops have been deployed to both Irbil and Baghdad to assist the Kurds and Iraqis in battling the Islamic State.
American officials have been much more unwilling to declare victory in the fight, which has already liberated a handful of Iraqi Christian villages captured on Aug. 6, when the Islamic State suddenly went on the attack against the Kurdish autonomous region, capturing the dam and driving to within a few dozen miles of Irbil.
The militants’ capture of the city of Sinjar provoked its religious minority, the Yazidis, to flee, stranding tens of thousands in a nearby mountain range without food, water or shelter in the brutal Iraqi summer heat. The resulting chaos led the U.S. to start both air drops of aid as well as beginning to provide a small number of airstrikes each day to take pressure off the lightly armed Kurdish forces.
In a letter to Congress released by the White House on Sunday, Obama explained that the support for the offensive on the dam was a continuation of his administration’s stated policy of protecting U.S. diplomatic interests in the region as well as preventing a humanitarian disaster if the dam were to somehow fail and flood Iraq as far south as Baghdad with millions of metric tons of water.
“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger 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,” he wrote.
In an Internet statement posted by the Islamic State, the group denied that the dam had fallen, calling the claims by the Iraqis and Kurds a “propaganda war” operation. Although the statement cannot be independently verified as from the Islamic State’s leadership, the statement did appear on a website that regularly releases the group’s announcements, which have generally been more accurate than some of the claims of the Iraqi government since widespread fighting began in mid-June.
If the Iraqi and Kurdish claims of success are proven true in the coming days, it would be a huge victory for a government that has yet to retake any substantial territory from the Islamic State since the fighting began over two months ago, after the Iraqi army essentially collapsed and gave up much of the country to the militants without much of fight. That collapse allowed the militants to capture billions of dollars in U.S.-supplied weaponry abandoned by the fleeing Iraqis and gave a military boost to the Islamic State that has left it one of the best-equipped armies in the region, able to fight aggressively on multiple fronts including Syria, Kurdistan and outside of Baghdad.
Nancy A. Youssef and Anita Kumar contributed from Washington.