BAGHDAD – Iraqi and Kurdish forces recaptured Iraq’s largest dam from Islamic militants Monday following dozens of U.S. airstrikes, President Barack Obama said, in the first major defeat for the extremists since they swept across the country this summer.
Militants from the Islamic State group had seized the Mosul Dam on Aug. 7, giving them access and control of enormous power and water reserves and threatening to deny those resources to much of Iraq.
Iraqi forces suffered a string of humiliating defeats at the hands of the Islamic State as the extremists took over large parts of northern and western Iraq and sent religious minorities fleeing.
The militants’ battlefield victories brought U.S. forces back into the conflict for the first time since it withdrew its troops in 2011 and reflected the growing international concern about the Sunni extremist group. Washington launched attacks from its warplanes and drones on Aug. 8.
Pope Francis endorsed the use of force to stop the Islamic militants from attacking religious minorities in Iraq, although he said the international community – not just one country – should decide how to intervene.
Obama called recapturing the dam by Iraqi and Kurdish forces a “major step forward” in the battle against Islamic State militants.
Had the dam been breached, it could have had catastrophic consequences and endangered U.S. Embassy personnel in Baghdad, Obama said at the White House. He said the U.S. is urgently providing arms and assistance to Iraqi security forces as well as Kurdish fighters fighting the extremists.
“We’ve got a national security interest in making sure our people are protected and in making sure that a savage group that seems willing to slaughter people for no rhyme or reason other than they have not kowtowed – that a group like that is contained, because ultimately it can pose a threat to us,” Obama told reporters.
He also urged the badly fractured and largely dysfunctional Iraqi government to move quickly to forge a united front. He noted last week’s decision by Nouri al-Maliki to step down as Iraq’s prime minister, a move that raised hopes a new government could roll back Iraq’s powerful Sunni insurgency and prevent the country from splitting apart.
“They’ve got to get this done because the wolf’s at the door,” Obama said.
Iraqi army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said at least 170 bombs have been dismantled around the dam but many more remain. He added that militants fled to areas near the south of the complex, hiding in homes and offices on the premises.
The Islamic State group denied it had lost control of the facility, saying on a website frequently used by the militants that the Iraqi government claim was a “mere propaganda war.”
Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq since the Islamic State’s rapid advance began in June. The scale of the humanitarian crisis prompted the U.N. to declare its highest level of emergency last week.