MOSUL DAM, Iraq — The two bodies lay festering in the midday sun on Tuesday, some of the only remnants of the Sunni militant force that until Monday night controlled the strategically important Mosul Dam.
Around them was the evidence of not just a fierce battle but also a different sort of fight: buildings reduced to rubble; cars churned into twisted metal; mammoth craters gouged from the road.
All bore testament to the deadly effect US airstrikes were having on the militants of the Islamic State, who until this month were marauding over northern Iraq with little resistance and who two weeks ago seized control of the dam.
It was not until President Obama authorized airstrikes by the US military on Aug. 7 that the Sunni fighters’ advance was halted. Two days of concerted air assaults starting Sunday around the dam then paved the way for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim the site.
On Tuesday, Kurdish military officials gave reporters a tour of the dam, to showcase Monday night’s victory and offer journalists a look at the facility. The dam itself, backed by a turquoise lake and surrounded by dun-colored mountains, was in fine condition, with little evidence of damage either from the fighting or from two weeks in militant hands.
But about an hour into the visit, gunshots erupted from the western edge of the dam complex, as militants who were dug into the side of a neighboring mountain harassed a convoy of vehicles making its way up a hill to a secondary dam. A minor gunfight ensued, with the government laying down the majority of the fire from mounted machine guns and artillery.
After an hour of sporadic fire, the confrontation ended and the convoy resumed its trip. The hundreds of Kurdish peshmerga fighters arrayed along the dam, proudly posing for photos and videos, scarcely moved. It was almost exclusively troops with the Iraqi Special Forces, at the head of the convoy, who engaged with the militants.
The peshmerga have received the majority of the credit for retaking the dam. But the Iraqi Special Forces troops who worked alongside them, who were created in the image of their US counterparts, have gotten far less attention. Known as the Golden Force, fighters interviewed Tuesday said they came from Baghdad and were called into the fight several days ago. One Special Forces group, stationed by a cluster of homes close to the site’s power plant, said they were the first to enter the area after a series of airstrikes Monday afternoon.
Muhammad Karim, one of the soldiers, said that when they arrived at the first abandoned militant checkpoint they discovered a woman, naked and bound, who had been repeatedly raped. Farther into the neighborhood, the Iraqi forces discovered another woman in the same state.
The Islamic State militants “are bad people,” he said, standing beside a demolished compound that hugged the road. “They are raping girls.”
Stories of women kidnapped by the militants have filtered through various minority communities, but Karim’s firsthand account, corroborated by colleagues interviewed separately, seemed to confirm the troubling rumors.
Until recently, the militants enjoyed relatively free rein in northern Iraq and northern Syria, moving freely with vehicles and weapons seized from the Iraqi military units that had crumbled in the first days of the attack on Mosul and surrounding areas. But with the Americans now engaged, their freedom of movement has been sharply curtailed.
“When I came here three weeks ago, they were moving fast and easy with armored vehicles,” said Mansour Barzani, the commander of the ground forces who reclaimed the dam. “Now, they don’t dare to move anymore.” The next step for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces remains unclear, though skirmishes between them and militants were reported Tuesday in Tikrit, a militant-controlled city.