Islamic State fighters captured a dam in Anbar province and killed 127 Iraqi troops including a top army commander in attacks that show the militant group’s resilience despite battlefield setbacks elsewhere in Iraq.
Iraqi forces have begun a military operation to retake Tharthar Dam near Fallujah, the Iraqi defense ministry said Saturday in a statement on its website. The dam controls the flow of water from Tharthar and Habaniya lakes into the Tigris River and lies 98 kilometers (61 miles) west of Baghdad.
U.S. officials said intelligence reports suggest the extremists had opened at least one of the dam’s gates, although darkness has hampered efforts to determine how much flooding, if any, resulted.
“It’s unlikely now the Iraqi defense ministry could be able to retake the dam from the group soon,” Faleh al-Issawi, deputy head of the Anbar provincial council, said by telephone.
The offensive demonstrates that Islamic State remains a threat in mostly Sunni Muslim Anbar province after being pushed out of Tikrit in neighboring Salahuddin province in March.
Al-Issawi said that Brigadier General Hassan Abbas Toufan, commander of the first army division, was among the dead. The Associated Press reported Toufan was killed Friday in an ambush on his convoy involving an explosives-packed bulldozer.
Ahmed al-Dulaimi, a tribal leader fighting Islamic State in Anbar, said by telephone that 40 soldiers were taken captive by the militants and he feared they would be executed.
Islamic State also claimed responsibility for attacks Saturday on two separate border crossings into Anbar.
Saad Maan, spokesman for the Iraqi interior ministry, told al-Sumaria television that seven soldiers including an officer were injured in a suicide attack at a border crossing into Saudi Arabia.
Reuters earlier reported that three suicide car bombs exploded at the border crossing with Jordan, killing four soldiers. Islamic State posted online pictures of three foreigners from France, Belgium and Senegal, who it said carried out the suicide attacks.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi visited Anbar earlier this month to oversee preparations for a campaign to push Islamic State out of the province, which the militants seized in June when they routed security forces and took control of wide areas of northern Iraq.
Despite claims by U.S. and Iraqi government officials that Islamic State fighters are losing ground to government forces, Kurdish fighters and local militias, American military and intelligence officers said the seesaw nature of the battle is demonstrating the extremists’ resilience, mobility and persistence.
When government forces and Shiite or Sunni militias advance in one place, said three U.S. officials on Saturday, the extremists attack somewhere else.
Their continued ability to do so, said the officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence assessments, raises questions about the caliber of Iraqi forces, and particularly whether they need significantly more American support, which the Obama administration has been reluctant to provide.
The Sunni extremists, one of the officials said, appear to be shifting their focus from adding more populated areas to their self-proclaimed caliphate to attacking Iraq’s economic infrastructure.