A Peshmerga fighter monitors the area in Bashiqa, near Mosul. Photo: AFP
Washington: The United States has conducted air strikes in Iraq against Islamic State fighters near the Kurdish capital of Erbil and the Mosul dam, the US Central Command said.
After a week of strikes confined to Erbil and Mount Sinjar, US fighter jets and armed drones struck yesterday near Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, to help wrest control of the dam seized by Islamic State forces earlier this month.
The combination of Navy F-18 and Air Force F-16 fighters, along with the drones, marked the largest deployment of US aircraft since the strikes began on August 8, according to a US defence official.
Mosul Dam, seen here in 2007, was captured by militants earlier this month. Photo: AP
Control of the dam could give the Sunni Islamists the ability to flood cities and cut off vital water and electricity supplies. The dam near Mosul is the most important asset the group captured since taking Nineveh province in June. The Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also controls several oil and gas fields in western Iraq and eastern Syria, generating millions of dollars in daily revenue to help fund the caliphate it announced and strengthen its grip on territory it has seized.
"The nine air strikes conducted thus far destroyed or damaged four armoured personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armoured vehicle," the US Central Command said on Saturday.
It said the strikes were aimed at supporting humanitarian efforts in Iraq and protecting US personnel and facilities there, and were conducted with a mix of fighters and drones.
Peshmerga fighters on the front lines in Bashiqa. Photo: AFP
Zuhair al-Chalabi, head of the National Reconciliation Committee in Mosul, said that towns near the dam would need to be captured before Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, could attempt to retake the dam.
"We are making preparations to retake Mosul dam, but so far we haven't deployed our forces on the ground to do so," Halogard Hikmat, a senior Peshmerga military official said. "The US air strikes are helping."
"Mosul city would drown within three hours" if the dam broke, said Aziz Alwash, an Iraqi environmental adviser, said earlier. Other cities down the road to Baghdad also would be inundated, while the capital would be under water within four hours, he said. The dam, completed in 1986, has a capacity of 20 billion to 30 billion cubic metres.
Iraq has been plunged into its worst violence since the peak of a sectarian civil war in 2006-2007, with Sunni fighters led by the Islamic State overrunning large parts of the west and north, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee for their lives and threatening ethnic Kurds in their autonomous province.
Following the announcement this week by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that he would step aside after eight years in power, US officials have said Washington may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq if the new leadership is more inclusive.
Iraq's leader- in-waiting Haider al-Abadi vowed to seek national unity. He won backing from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, while Massoud Barzani, president of the largely autonomous Kurdish region, said he would support the premier-designate in a call for a government that "involves all Iraqi factions," the state-run National Iraqi News Agency reported.
Dr Abadi said he will seek to "accommodate segments of the Iraqi people and unite them to eliminate terrorism," Al-Mada news reported on its website.
In Syria, militants have executed at least 700 civilians from the al-Sheetat tribe in the country's eastern Deir Ezzour province in the past two weeks, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The fate of hundreds of other tribe members remains unknown, the group said.
While the US intelligence community had estimated that the Islamic State had about 10,000 fighters in Syria and Iraq before it captured Mosul, that estimate is now being revised upward, several intelligence officials said last week.