Kurdish Iraqi forces backed by U.S. airstrikes regained control of a strategic dam late Monday after a three-day battle with Islamic State militants who overran the facility earlier this month, military officials said.
“We now have complete control of the Mosul dam,” Kurdish Brig. Gen. Sardar Karim said along the front lines of the battle, about 20 miles east of the militant-held northern city of Mosul.
The Islamic State militants appeared to be in a tactical retreat from the dam and surrounding villages, ceding the ground they took less than two weeks ago, under a barrage of U.S. airstrikes and a ground attack by rejuvenated Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga.
The Pentagon said it conducted 15 airstrikes in the Mosul dam area Monday, the third day of a joint operation with Iraqi government and Kurdish forces. U.S. warplanes hit an Islamic State checkpoint, nine fighting positions and several armored vehicles, according to a statement by U.S. Central Command.
The Pentagon posted two videos to YouTube showing grainy black-and-white footage of airstrikes at the dam on Saturday.
The U.S. Central Command said it conducted the airstrikes under its authority to support humanitarian efforts in Iraq, which includes protecting critical infrastructure.
The U.S. has conducted a total of 68 airstrikes in Iraq over the last 10 days, 35 in the battle for Mosul dam, according to the Pentagon.
“The American bombing has been a tremendous help,” Karim said. “We are coordinating closely with the Americans.”
In one international note of dissent, Pope Francis, speaking to reporters on his flight back to Rome from South Korea, said decisions about whether to stop an “unjust aggressor” such as the Islamic State should be taken by international organizations such as the United Nations, not by a single nation.
“How many times with the excuse of halting the unjust aggressor … have powerful nations taken possession of peoples and waged a war of conquest?” he asked, according to Vatican Radio.
The pope also said he is prepared to visit refugees fleeing the Islamic State in northern Iraq, although he did not commit to doing so, and the logistics of such a trip would appear to be daunting.
The U.S. stepped up airstrikes in Iraq after the resignation last week of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, which paved the way for a new government that is expected to be named by next month. U.S. officials say Maliki ran a sectarian, Shiite Muslim-dominated government that alienated minority Sunni Muslims and fueled support for the Islamic State fighters.
The militant group’s seizure of the dam -- which provides electricity for most of northern Iraq and sits 30 miles from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city -- caught U.S. and Kurdish officials by surprise. Obama administration officials feared that the militants could destroy the dam, sending floodwaters surging downstream into Mosul.
Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Saad Maan told state-run Iraqiya television that government forces had defused 150 explosives planted around the dam and had engaged in firefights with Islamic State militants that resulted in several casualties.
Mahma Khalil, a lawmaker from northern Iraq who toured the Mosul dam area Sunday, said in an interview that Kurdish peshmerga forces were preparing to enter the militant-held village of Tal Kayf, about five miles northwest of Mosul.
From there, however, U.S. air power would be of limited use in any attempt to advance on Mosul, a majority Sunni Arab city where the Islamic State enjoys considerable support. Airstrikes in the densely populated city also carry the risk of civilian casualties, which could harden public support for the militants, commanders say.
McDonnell reported from Tel Skuf and Bengali from Baghdad. Staff writer W.J. Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.
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