Iraqi forces have cleared Islamic State militants from the area surrounding the strategically important Haditha Dam and regained control of the nearby town of Barwana with the help of a series of US airstrikes.
Barwana, located southeast of Haditha in Anbar province, was retaken on Monday when Iraqi troops and pro-government Shiite militias routed Islamic State fighters, according to AFP. State television had previously reported that the northern approach to Barwana was under government control and that 15 Islamic State militants had been killed.
Anbar governor Ahmed al-Dulaimi was wounded in the fighting, although he said on Monday on his Twitter account that he was recovering from his injuries.
The US conducted a series of air strikes on Islamic State targets close to the dam over the weekend, the first made in direct support of troops loyal to the central government in Baghdad since American operations began last month. Previous strikes had been coordinated with peshmerga troops from semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The Department of Defense said in a statement that the attacks had destroyed four Islamic State Humvees, four armed vehicles, two fighting positions and a command post.
A militia leader fighting in the region told Reuters that US aircraft had destroyed an Islamic State patrol attempting to launch an assault on the dam. "They were very accurate. There was no collateral damage," Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha said. "If Islamic State had gained control of the dam, many areas of Iraq would have been seriously threatened, even Baghdad."
US officials said the attacks had been launched at the request of Iraqi lawmakers and would help protect American assets and interests. "We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam, which remains under control of Iraqi security forces, with support from Sunni tribes," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said on Sunday. "We will continue to conduct operations as needed in support of the Iraqi security forces and the Sunni tribes, working with those forces securing Haditha Dam."
On Sunday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel further explained the rationale for the strikes.
Haditha Dam, which holds the second-largest reservoir in Iraq, supplies water and power to millions in the south and west of Iraq. Its loss would have had potentially disastrous consequences for Iraqi infrastructure, while if the dam was breached it could flood the entire province.
The US has launched at least 138 air strikes on Islamic State targets since it resumed military operations on August 8 after a break when a thousands strong ground force left the country at the end of 2011. In the preceding years, Anbar was the scene of brutal fighting between US ground troops and Sunni insurgents, including the Islamic State's predecessor al-Qaeda in Iraq.
IS overran large swathes of northern Iraq in June, but the US only decided to intervene when the militants made a push into Kurdish territory in August and advanced to within a few miles of the regional capital of Erbil.
Washington now looks set to take things further. President Barack Obama said last week that talks would begin to pull together an international coalition to counter IS. The US has shown more willingness to take on IS directly after the militants released video showing the murder of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Obama is set to unveil his strategy to beat the group on Wednesday.
The president has said efforts would be escalated against the Islamic State. "There's going to be a military element to it.," he told NBC. "And what I want people to understand, though, is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL [IS]. We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And, ultimately, we're going to defeat them," he said.
It seems that the Arab League may provide some backing to Western efforts. Nabil Elaraby, the organization's head, urged political and military action against IS on Sunday."What is needed is a clear decision for a comprehensive confrontation, militarily and politically," he told reporters during a meeting of Arab foreign ministers, AFP reported.
Also on Monday, IS militants launched a gunboat and car bomb attack on the town of Dhuluiya, 45 miles north of Baghdad. Seventeen people were killed and 54 wounded in the predawn assault, which was repelled after two hours of fighting, according to security sources cited by Reuters. The attack hit a meeting between Sunni tribal fighters opposed to Islamic State and Iraqi forces and began when a suicide bomber drove a Humvee packed with explosives into the gathering and detonated it, according to a police source cited by the Associated Press. Militants then crossed a river and attacked Dhuluiya itself.
Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers were attempting to cobble together an inclusive unity government in Baghdad to successfully take on the Islamic State. Incoming prime minister Haider al-Abadi, who will replace the controversial current premier, Nouri al-Maliki, has days to announce a new government. A parliamentary session scheduled for Monday was expected to vote on a new government, despite continued political wrangling over the cabinet's makeup.
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