WASHINGTON — Iraqi and Kurdish ground troops overran Sunni militants and reclaimed Iraq’s largest dam Monday, President Obama said, as US warplanes unleashed a barrage of bombs in an expansion of the limited goals laid out by the president in authorizing the military campaign in Iraq.
Obama, who interrupted a family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to meet Monday with his national security team in Washington, maintained that the airstrikes around the Mosul Dam were within the constraints of what he initially characterized as a limited campaign meant to break the siege of stranded Yazidis on Mount Sinjar and protect US personnel, citizens, and facilities in Iraq.
In announcing the seizure of the strategically critical dam, Obama mixed his message with a warning to Iraqi leaders not to use the heightened US military support as an excuse to slow down political reconciliation.
“Don’t think that because we’ve engaged in airstrikes to protect our people that now is the time to let your foot off the gas and return to the kind of dysfunction that has so weakened the country generally,” the president said.
Obama credited Iraqi and Kurdish forces with moving swiftly to take advantage of US airstrikes on the Islamic State militants around Mosul Dam over the past two days. It was the first time Kurdish and Iraqi forces had worked so closely together to defeat the Islamic State.
Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting alongside Iraqi army troops, confirmed full control of the dam and its vicinity had been reestablished after two days of fierce clashes, the Associated Press reported.
Lieutenant General Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi army spokesman, said troops were still working Monday to dismantle mines laid by the militants. The recapture of the strategically important dam from the Islamic State is the government’s most significant success against the Sunni militants since they began their sweep through northern Iraq more than two weeks ago.
The dam, which is on the Tigris River about 30 miles from Mosul, is a critical source of electricity for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Destruction of the facility could have discharged a 65-foot wave of water that would have wiped out several areas of northern Iraq, including Mosul, and flooded areas as far south as Baghdad.
While there were no indications that the militants planned to use the dam as a weapon, according to Iraqi officials, the threat was enough to persuade Washington to launch a concerted campaign of airstrikes to assist the joint effort.
US warplanes and drones unleashed 35 strikes near the Mosul dam in the last two days, more than half of all the attacks conducted countrywide since Obama authorized the use of military force on Aug. 8, the same day the dam fell to the Islamic State.
The impact of the US involvement has been decisive, Kurdish officials acknowledged. They were optimistic that coordination between the Iraqi forces and the Americans would deepen, now that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to step aside, as the Obama administration had demanded.
“The circumstances in Iraq are very different from the circumstances just a week ago because of political changes,” said Fadhil Merani, the political secretary of the Kurdish Democratic Party, whose military forces have supplied most of the troops in the Mosul Dam operation. “The effort to coordinate with our new acting prime minister is very different from our friend Mr. Maliki.”
Such is the euphoria among the peshmerga that Kurdish officials have openly talked in recent days about positioning themselves for a potential push towards Mosul itself, though such discussion remains highly speculative.
The rout of the Islamic State forces comes after a string of successes since the US military unleashed jet and drone attacks on the militants, stopping an advance that threatened the major Kurdish city of Irbil and the lives of thousands of Yazidi refugees. Now, the US intervention seems to be backstopping a major Kurdish effort to reclaim lost territory.
The strikes aimed around the city of Mosul and the dam have severely hampered the Sunni militants, reducing their freedom of movement and forcing them to retreat from areas they once dominated.
The smoke from what appeared to be fresh airstrikes was visible from the town of Badriya, northwest of the dam, where the peshmerga forces were running a checkpoint. More than a dozen armored personnel carriers full of Kurdish fighters came through, heading to the dam.
The forces manning the checkpoint were on edge, forcing cars to turn back and even challenging the ability of peshmerga forces to enter the area.
A large truck passed through the checkpoint at midday from the direction of the dam, carrying more than two dozen metal cylinders, strewn with wires. Idris Mohammed, a Kurdish military officer, said they were bombs that Kurdish military engineers had removed from a village near the dam.
The decision to launch airstrikes marked the first direct US military intervention in Iraq since the last American troops withdrew in 2011 and reflected growing international concern about the Islamic State.