IRBIL, Iraq — Sunni militants captured the Mosul dam, the largest in Iraq, as their advances in the country’s north created an onslaught of refugees and set off fearful rumors in Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital.
Residents near the dam and officials in the region confirmed that the Islamic State held the dam, a potentially catastrophic development for Iraq’s civilian population.
The dam, which sits on the Tigris River and is about 30 miles northwest of the city of Mosul, provides electricity to Mosul and controls the water supply for a large amount of territory. A report published in 2007 by the U.S. government, which had been involved with work on the dam, warned that should it fail, a 65-foot wave of water could be unleashed across areas of northern Iraq.
In a statement issued on a social media account believed to belong to the group, the Islamic State claimed that it had captured the dam and vowed to continue its offensive northward as it consolidates control and continues to realize its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate that bridges the borders of Syria and Iraq.
“Our Islamic State forces are still fighting in all directions, and we will not step down until the project of the caliphate is established, with the will of God,” the statement said.
The Islamic State continued Thursday to battle peshmerga forces for control of towns east of Mosul, in the direction of Irbil, and civilians hoping to flee the fighting flooded the Irbil airport and swamped the Iraqi Airways office in a futile attempt to get tickets to Baghdad.
In the early hours of Thursday, forces from the Kurdish peshmerga left checkpoints guarding several largely Christian settlements east of Mosul because they had been called to defend Kurdish towns closer to Irbil, according to a colonel in the Kurdish Defense Ministry.
By late Wednesday, Kurdish television was reporting that Mahmour and Gwar, two Kurdish settlements less than 20 miles west of Irbil, had fallen to the Islamic State. By Thursday morning, a colonel in the peshmerga said that Mahmour had been retaken, while militants remained in control of Gwar.