Kurdish and Iraqi forces seized control of Iraq’s largest dam from Islamic State militants as the U.S. deployed air power that helped reverse some gains made by the Sunni-Muslim insurgents in the north.
Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, have forced militants from the dam and now need to clear a 2 kilometer stretch of mines and bombs, according to Kurdish spokesman Halogard Hikmat. “There is no Islamic State presence on the dam. It is under peshmerga and Iraqi army control,” he said by phone from Erbil. “We have further plans in the next days for liberating other areas.”
Islamic State fighters forced the peshmerga to retreat earlier this month as they swept toward Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan. The insurgents had earlier taken Mosul Dam using U.S.-made weapons seized from fleeing Iraqi troops. In response, President Barack Obama authorized airstrikes on Aug. 8 to protect U.S. personnel and threatened Iraqi minorities.
Taking back the dam is “important in terms of it being a key piece of Iraqi infrastructure but it does not necessarily mark an overall turning point in the battle,” said Austin Long, a professor at Columbia University in New York. “I think the Islamic State has been remarkably successful fighting on multiple fronts,” he said by e-mail. Such tactics mean that “they may lose some territory as they shift forces around.”
Obama widened the U.S. military role over the weekend, authorizing attacks for the first time to protect critical infrastructure. American bombers were used for the first time since the offensive began to help secure the dam.
While the advances by Kurdish and U.S. forces will be welcomed by Prime Minister-designate Haidar al-Abadi, he’ll likely need to win the support of the Sunni tribes who have backed the Islamic State in order to force the insurgents into a major retreat.
Sunnis are seeking significant concessions from Abadi, with one tribal leader from Salahuddin province saying in a phone interview today that only a large degree of autonomy for a united Sunni province would suffice.
Abadi must “allow our legal and constitutional requests for merging Diyala, Salahuddin and Anbar provinces to become one autonomous region within Iraq,” Najih al-Mizan, a leader of the Albu-Rahman tribe in the northern city of Samarra, in Salahuddin province, said from Erbil.
“We fought al-Qaeda and kicked it out in 2007 but we were persecuted by” former Premier Nouri al-Maliki, a member of the same Shiite majority as Abadi. “We won’t fall for that again. When we are allowed to create our own autonomous region and form our own regional army then we would turn our weapons to fighting against Islamic State,” Mizan said, also calling for an end to shelling in Sunni provinces and compensation for those forced from their homes. “The ball is now in Abadi’s court.”
The Sunni tribes had presented their demands to the new government but were yet to get a response, he said.
While militants from Islamic State have lost control of Mosul dam, they retain key oil infrastructure in Iraq and eastern Syria, generating millions of dollars in daily revenue to help fund a self-proclaimed caliphate, or state based on the group’s hard-line interpretation of Islamic law, and to strengthen its grip on territory it has seized. Militant-controlled oil-fields at Ain Zala and Batma in Iraq have an output of 30,000 barrels per day. The Sunni militants have also occupied the Qayyara oil field north of Baghdad.
Kurdish fighters, along with regular Iraqi forces and U.S. fighter jets, are seeking to rein in the Sunni insurgents who have rampaged through OPEC’s No. 2 oil producer, seizing border posts, beheading foes and targeting dams.
The U.S. destroyed or damaged Islamic State armed vehicles, Humvees, armored personnel carriers and a checkpoint near the dam in 14 strikes yesterday, according to a statement from U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.
In Syria, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad attacked Islamic State fighters with airstrikes and on the ground. The Syrian air force conducted 43 air attacks against militant positions in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria and positions in the north, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page.
Oil futures declined with reports of Islamic State battlefield losses in northern Iraq.
Brent for October slid $2,23, or 2.2 percent, to $101.30 a barrel at 12:46 p.m. New York time on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. WTI for September delivery decreased $1.39, or 1.4 percent, to $95.96 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The conflict in Iraq has spared the south, home to about three-quarters of its production. The nation pumped 3 million barrels a day in July, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.