DOHUK, Iraq — Kurdish fighters pushed to retake Iraq’s largest dam on Sunday in an attempt to reverse gains by Islamic State insurgents who have overrun much of the country’s north, officials said.
Islamic State militants have seized several towns and oilfields as well as the Mosul Dam in recent weeks, possibly giving them the ability to flood cities or cut off water and electricity supplies.
Asked about a Kurdish push to dislodge the militants on Sunday, a Kurdish official said they had not retaken the dam itself but had seized “most of the surrounding area.”
The United States said it conducted 14 air strikes on Sunday against Islamic State fighters near the dam.
U.S. Central Command said the latest strikes destroyed three armed vehicles, a vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft and an emplacement of the Islamic State, as well as one of the militants’ checkpoints. The strikes followed nine U.S. air strikes on Saturday near the dam and the Kurdish capital, Arbil.
The White House said on Sunday President Barack Obama informed Congress he authorized air strikes to help retake control of the dam.
“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, threaten 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,” the White House said in a statement.
The air strike campaign against the Islamic State militants began earlier this month in the first direct military action in Iraq since the end of 2011, when Washington completed the withdrawal of its troops from the country.
Islamic State militants have told residents in the area to leave, according to an engineer who works at the site.
The engineer said the militants told him they were planting roadside bombs along roads leading in and out of the facility, possibly in fear of an attack by Kurdish fighters who have been bolstered by U.S. airstrikes.
U.S. planes — deployed over Iraq for the first time since the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011 because of the Islamic State’s advances — had been striking targets near Mosul Dam over the last 24 hours, peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hikmat said.
“God willing, we will regain control of the dam today,” he said.
U.S. officials said last week the U.S. government was directly supplying weapons to Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
Witnesses said Kurdish forces have recaptured the mainly Christian towns of Batmaiya and Telasqaf, 18 miles from Mosul, the closest they have come to the city since Islamic State insurgents drove government forces out in June.
The insurgents have also tightened their security checkpoints in Mosul, conducting more intensive inspections of vehicles and identification cards, witnesses said.
The Kurds, who live in a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq, have long dreamed of independence from central governments in Baghdad, which oppressed the nonArab ethnic group for decades under Saddam Hussein.
Tensions were also high under outgoing Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who clashed with them over budgets and oil.
The Kurds since June have capitalized on the chaos in northern Iraq, taking over oilfields in the disputed city of Kirkuk.
Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, faces the task of reducing Sunni-Shi’ite tensions that have revived a sectarian civil war and addressing those Kurdish independence ambitions.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has warned against the formation of an independent Kurdish state, saying this would risk further destabilizing the region.
“An independent Kurdish state would …create new tensions, possibly also with the states neighboring Iraq,” Steinmeier said in an interview with Germany’s Bild am Sonntag newspaper published on Sunday.
Proclaiming a caliphate straddling parts of Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants have swept across northern Iraq, pushing back Kurdish regional forces and driving tens of thousands of Christians and members of the Yazidi religious minority from their homes.
Steinmeier, who met Iraq’s new Shi’ite prime minister in Baghdad on Saturday, said the formation of a new government that all regions and religions could identify with “is perhaps the last chance for cohesion in Iraq.”
The European Union has allowed individual EU governments to supply arms and ammunition to Iraqi Kurds, provided there is the consent from the authorities in Baghdad. Washington is already supplying weapons.
In a televised statement apparently referring to that action, the office of the Iraqi army command on Sunday evening said: “We warn all parties not to exploit the current security situation in the north of Iraq and violate sovereign airspace to ship arms to local parties without approval of the central government.”
When asked about possible German deliveries, Steinmeier said: “We’re not ruling anything out. We’re looking at what’s possible and doing what is necessary as quickly as possible.”
Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani reiterated his call for weapons from Germany and other Western countries in an interview with Bild am Sonntag.
Fears of Islamic State militants — who Iraqi officials say have massacred hundreds of Yazidis — have driven thousands of people to the Kurdish region.
In the town of Dohuk, about 100 Yazidis held demonstrations on Sunday, complaining that they had given up on Iraq and wanted to travel to Turkey but were prevented from doing so by Kurdish security forces.
“They can’t protect us. The Islamic State came to our villages and killed hundreds. We don’t want to stay in Iraq, they will kill us sooner or later,” a 20-year-old woman named Nadia said. “I want America to help me. The peshmerga are not letting us through.”