Assisted by two days of US air strikes, Iraqi and Kurdish forces wrested back control of the country’s largest dam from Islamic militants on Monday, a military spokesman in Baghdad said as fighting was reported to be under way for the rest of the complex.
Soon after the news broke, Isis, which calls itself Islamic State and captured the Mosul Dam two weeks ago, denied the claim, insisting it was still in control of the facility.
The retaking of the dam would mark the first major victory for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Islamic militants since US air strikes began earlier this month.
It could significantly boost their morale as they try to free territory overrun by Isis in a blitz this summer. Also, the dam and its broader complex hold strategic value as they supply electricity and water to a large part of the country.
The army spokesman Lt- Gen Qassim al-Moussawi said the dam was secured by Kurdish Peshmerga troops and Iraqi security forces but that the southern side of the complex remains contested and that fierce fighting is under way to free that area.
At least 170 bombs have been dismantled around the dam but many more remain, Lt-Gen Moussawi added.
Lt-Gen Moussawi said the Iraqi and Kurdish forces “hoisted the Iraqi flag over” the dam. He added that the troops were backed by joint aerial support but did not specify whether there were any US air strikes in the area yesterday.
Residents and others in the area could not be contacted to confirm the recapture of the dam.
Iraq’s Ministry of Defence said security forces “liberated a large part of the Mosul Dam” with the help of US air strikes, adding that forces are working to free the entire complex. US Central Command would not immediately confirm any involvement.
However, a senior Kurdish commander told the Associated Press that his Peshmerga forces had withdrawn from the dam complex yesterday afternoon because it was heavily rigged with explosives. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to media.
In an internet statement, Isis denied losing control of the dam, dismissing the government claim as a “mere propaganda war”.
The US launched air strikes against Isis in Iraq more than a week ago in a bid to halt its advance across the north. The US military said its forces conducted nine strikes on Saturday and another 16 on Sunday.
The dam’s seizure by Isis militants on 7 August was part of a string of victories by the Sunni radical group as it looks to expand its hold in northern Iraq, driving back Kurdish forces, sending minority communities fleeing and unleashing a wave of violence over a territory straddling the Syria-Iraq border.
The decision to launch air strikes marked the first direct US military intervention in Iraq since the last American troops withdrew in 2011 and reflected growing international concern about the extremist group.
The White House sent a letter to Congress on Sunday saying that its air campaign in Iraq “is consistent with the President’s directive that the US military protect US personnel and facilities in Iraq, since the failure of Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians and threaten US personnel and facilities – including the US embassy in Baghdad”.
It also noted that the failure of the dam could “prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services” to the Iraqi people.
Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq since the Isis’s rapid advance began in June. The scale of the humanitarian crisis prompted the UN to declare its highest level of emergency lasts week.