BAGHDAD — Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured Iraq’s biggest dam from Islamist militants with the help of U.S. airstrikes to secure a vital strategic objective in fighting that threatens to break up the country, Kurdish and U.S. officials said Monday.
U.S. fighter, bomber and drone aircraft took part in the strikes on Islamic State positions near the Mosul Dam, the Pentagon said. The strikes damaged or destroyed six armed vehicles, a light armored vehicle and other equipment.
The dam had given the militants control over power and water supplies, and any breach of the vulnerable structure would have threatened thousands of lives.
President Barack Obama emerged from talks Monday with his top national security aides about Iraq to declare U.S. airstrikes had helped Iraqi Kurdish forces take the Mosul Dam from the militants, averting a possible breach of the structure that could end up flooding Baghdad.
“This operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together in taking the fight to ISIS [Islamic State], and if they continue to do so they will have the strong support of the United States of America,” Obama told a news conference.
He also urged Iraqis on Monday to quickly form an inclusive government to unite against Islamic militants, warning “the wolf’s at the door” and that U.S. airstrikes can accomplish only so much.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Obama vowed to avoid the kind of “mission creep” that could deepen the U.S. military’s involvement in Iraq to repulse Islamic State militants seen increasingly as a threat not just to Iraq but to the entire region.
Obama is adamant that he will not allow the United States to replay the Iraq war begun by his predecessor, George W. Bush. He said Iraqis should not get a false sense of complacency from his decision this month to use airstrikes against the militants.
“Don’t think that because we have engaged in airstrikes to protect our people that now’s the time to let the foot off the gas and return to the same kind of dysfunction that has so weakened the country generally,” Obama said.
As fighting intensified, Islamic State militants were said to have killed dozens of Kurdish fighters and captured 170 of them, according to a Twitter site that supports the group.
The Islamists’ seizure of the Mosul hydroelectric dam in northern Iraq this month marked a stunning setback for Baghdad’s Shiite-led authorities and raised fears the militants could cut electricity and water, or even blow up the shaky structure, causing huge loss of life and damage down the Tigris River valley.
“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,” a senior U.S. administration official said in Washington.
Iraqi officials hailed what they said was a strategic victory in regaining control of the dam, and announced that the next objective would be to win back Mosul itself, the biggest city in northern Iraq which lies 25 miles downstream.
Hoshiyar Zebari, a top Kurdish official, said Iraqi Kurd forces had captured the dam — blighted by structural problems since it was built by West German engineers for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s — with help from U.S. airstrikes nearby.
“Taking the dam took longer than expected because Islamic State had planted land mines,” he told Reuters.
Baghdad officials vowed to turn the tide against Islamic State, whose campaign to create a regional caliphate has threatened to tear Iraq apart.
“The new tactic of launching a quick attack shrouded by secrecy proved successful and we are determined to keep following the new assault tactics with help of intelligence provided by Americans,” Sabah Nouri, a spokesman for Iraq’s counter-terrorism unit, told Reuters.
“The next stop will be Mosul.”
A dam employee contested the government’s version of events.
“Islamic State fighters are still in full control over the dam’s facilities and most of them are taking shelter near the sensitive places of the dam to avoid airstrikes,” the employee told Reuters. The employee gave no further details.
Engineers have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of the 2.2-mile-wide dam since Saddam was overthrown in 2003.
Islamic State threatened in a video Monday to attack U.S. targets “in any place” if American airstrikes hit militants and said, “We will drown all of you in blood.”
A 2006 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report obtained by The Washington Post said the dam, which blocks the Tigris and holds 12 billion cubic meters of water, could flood two cities, killing tens of thousands of people, if it were destroyed or collapsed. The report called it “the most dangerous dam in the world.”
A wall of water could surge as far as Baghdad, 250 miles away.
At the time, Iraqi officials described the warnings as alarmist and said measures were being taken to shore up the dam that has been weakened by cavities caused by soil being washed out. These holes need to be constantly refilled but it is unclear whether this work has continued under the militants.
Zebari said officials from his community would join talks on forming a new, inclusive administration considered vital for battling the Sunni Muslim militants who have overrun much of the country.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stepped down last week after criticism that his policies, by favoring Shiites, had encouraged some members of the Sunni minority to join the Islamic State insurgency.
Haider al-Abadi, a fellow Shiite with a less confrontational reputation, has been appointed prime minister-designate to try to form a government including leaders of Iraq’s main minorities. The aim is to form a united front to take on Islamic State.