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U.S. airstrikes help Kurds take back control of Mosul Dam

AP
Iraq Shiite fighters with the 'Peace Brigades' fire at terrorists from the Islamic State in Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles south of Baghdad, on Monday, Aug 18, 2014. Fighters of the voluntary armed group formed after the radical Shiite cleric Muqtatda al-Sadr called to protect holy shrines against possible attacks by Sunni militants.

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Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, 10:57 p.m.
 

BADRIYA, Iraq — Waves of U.S. airstrikes around a vital dam in northern Iraq helped Iraqi forces to seize it from Islamist terrorists on Monday.

Iraqi and Kurdish officials said they expelled Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters from Mosul Dam, the country's largest, and are in complete control of it. It was their biggest push to reverse ISIS's gains in nearly two months of bloody fighting.

Yet Christian and Yazidi villagers who fled ISIS's advance remain wary of returning home. Many watched from a distance while fighting continued throughout the day as American warplanes roared overhead and smoke from explosions darkened the horizon.

“I want to go to my village now, but it is too dangerous,” said Khaled Hudada, 44, a teacher from Al Risala, a mostly Yazidi village of about 4,000 people.

“Some of our Arab neighbors were helping ISIS to get into the village, and they are the ones who stole our things.”

Peering toward the far-off explosions, he said: “Our only savior, after God, is America.”

Mahdi Hussein, a captain of Kurdish militia known as peshmerga, claimed to be “in control of Mosul Dam, 100 percent.”

Lt. Gen. Qassem Atta, an Iraqi army spokesman, said Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi special forces, backed by U.S. air power, “fully liberated the dam” and “hoisted the Iraqi flag over it.”

U.S. drones, bombers and fighter jets made 15 strikes and “damaged or destroyed” nine ISIS positions, a checkpoint, an armored vehicle and an anti-aircraft artillery gun, a U.S. military statement said.

Of 68 airstrikes since Aug. 8, it said, 35 were around Mosul Dam.

President Obama notified Congress of the airstrikes in a letter, stating that ISIS's control of the dam threatened “large numbers of civilians” and endangered “U.S. personnel and facilities.”

Kurdish peshmerga moved quickly on the dam as soon as the airstrikes allowed but were slowed by booby-traps and mines. Their sappers drove a truck of deactivated explosives to the Badriya checkpoint.

A Kurdish captain, wiping sweat from his face in the 110-degree heat, said “we deactivated 27 explosives and landmines along the road” and exploded two others.

Kurdish troops kept civilian cars from entering the area as other peshmerga headed toward the fighting on trucks.

The dam on the Tigris River provides water and hydroelectricity to much of northern Iraq. ISIS seized it and nearby towns on Aug. 7, during a blitz that threatened the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

U.S. and Iraqi officials feared ISIS would destroy the dam and flood much of the country.

ISIS — known for beheading and crucifying some of its captives — still controls a large swath of Iraq and Syria, including Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Minority Christians and Yazidis have fled to the relative safety of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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