BADRIYA, Iraq – Islamic State fighters were on the run in northern Iraq on Sunday after Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, closed in on a strategically vital dam in the most significant attempt yet to reverse the militants’ blitz through Iraq.
Iraqi and Kurdish commanders claimed to be making swift progress, slicing through a series of villages and then reaching the dam after a wave of U.S. attacks in which fighter jets, drones and bombers pummeled the extremists’ positions.
It was the biggest offensive since the latest U.S. intervention in Iraq was announced 10 days ago, and it signaled an expansion of what was originally defined as a narrowly focused mission to protect American personnel in Iraq and help fleeing Yazidi villagers trapped on a mountain.
In a letter released Sunday notifying Congress of the action, President Barack Obama said the militants’ control of the dam posed a threat to the U.S. Embassy 200 miles away in Baghdad, which could be inundated if the dam were breached.
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.
Obama had signaled in a statement last week that protecting critical infrastructure would be part of what officials have described as a limited military intervention. This was, however, the first time Iraqi, Kurdish and U.S. forces had come together to launch a major ground assault.
A week ago, U.S. airstrikes helped clear Islamic State positions, enabling Kurdish fighters to retake two small towns south of the Kurdish capital, Irbil.
That marked the Kurds’ first successful effort to recapture territory they had lost to an Islamic State offensive launched two weeks ago.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials said Sunday’s operation was going better than expected and that the dam would soon be under full government control.
We expect to finish this within hours, said Helgurd Hikmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga.
Late Sunday night, a senior Kurdish official said Islamic State fighters had abandoned their positions at the dam but that Iraqi and Kurdish forces had refrained from entering the facility because of concerns that it was booby-trapped.
The Islamic State’s capture Aug. 7 of the Mosul Dam, just hours before Obama announced his decision to send U.S. warplanes back into action in Iraq, was a high point in the group’s campaign to establish a caliphate across the Middle East, putting the militants in control of one of Iraq’s most vital facilities.
Iraq’s elite special forces, which worked closely alongside U.S. Special Forces units before U.S. troops withdrew in 2011, took the lead in the fighting around the dam, while peshmerga troops closed in on the surrounding villages from the north.
Their advance was preceded by the most intense U.S. bombardment yet, with 14 airstrikes destroying armed vehicles, Humvees, armored personnel carriers and a checkpoint belonging to the militants, according to U.S. Central Command statements.
The strikes followed nine in the area the previous day. Three more were carried out later Sunday.
The assault was the worst setback for the Islamic State since the militants embarked on their stunning rout of the Iraqi army across northern Iraq in June. The group has since continued to expand across Iraq and Syria.