The battle for Iraq's largest dam continued today, even as officials claimed that government troops and Kurdish forces had regained control of the complex from hardline Sunni militant group the Islamic State, which seized it earlier this month.
Iraqi military spokesman Lt-Gen. Qassim Atta told state television today that Mosul Dam had been "fully cleansed" of militants by a joint force of Iraqi troops and peshmerga fighters from Iraqi Kurdistan backed by US and Iraqi aircraft. However, when VICE News visited the peshmerga front lines close to the dam, fighting was still clearly underway and medical staff reported a number of Kurdish and Iraqi casualties.
There was regular mortar and heavy machine gun fire from the peshmerga positions, and some, though far fewer, incoming rounds from Islamic State fighters. Clouds of black smoke were visible in the distance. Peshmerga told VICE News that they came from villages that the Islamic State had retreated from, set fire to, and booby trapped.
Iraqi and Kurdish fighters have clearly pushed the Islamic State back significantly, however. The road to the current front is lined with burnt-out buildings and a number of destroyed vehicles, some with Islamic State markings on the side.
US and Iraqi air support has also played a large role in repelling the militant fighters. A number of obvious air strike sites were visible and some buildings had been completely flattened. US Central Command said in a statement that it had conducted 15 airstrikes near the dam this morning alone, using a mix of piloted aircraft and drones.
This brings the total number of attacks carried out on Islamic State targets near the dam to 35, out of a total 68 which have taken place in Iraq since August 8, when the US first launched strikes in an attempt to stop the insurgents advancing further into Kurdish territory.
Even in retreat, however, the Islamic State has proven hard to deal with. Ambulance drivers responsible for carrying the injured to a hospital in nearby Dohuk told VICE News that a number of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi army personnel were wounded on Monday morning. In the previous days of fighting there have been 15-20 people injured, they said, most as a result of IEDs and a few snipers who dug in while their comrades pulled out.
"There are many people from the Iraqi army and peshmerga who have been hit by mines [IEDs]," one driver said. "The Islamic State filled the whole region with mines when they left." They added that a friendly fire incident, apparently as a result of a 6am airstrike, had injured a number of Kurdish fighters. Neither the peshmerga ministry nor US Central Command responded to queries from VICE News on the topic
Access to the Kurdish front was closely controlled, with only a small selection of media allowed through checkpoints as part of a carefully marshaled convoy and instructed not to question individual peshmerga. Many members of the press were turned away completely
The trip was carefully stage-managed with fighters happily posing for pictures with their guns pointing out into no man's land. When special forces fired 107mm rockets at Islamic State positions in the nearby village of Filfil, commanders made sure that TV crews were able to set up their cameras in a neat row and have anchors standing by.
Mosul Dam fell on August 7 during a lightning advance by the Islamic State where it seized large chunks of Kurdish-held territory and sent minority communities fleeing. Recapturing the facility would be a major victory for Iraqi and Kurdish forces and the dam itself has great strategic importance as it is used to supply large parts of the country with both water and electricity.
US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress on Sunday saying that strikes around the dam helped secure American interests and ensure the safety of the Iraqi people. "The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the US Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace," Obama said.
The US is also supplying the peshmerga with small arms and ammunition, something a number of other countries, including France and the Czech Republic, have also committed to doing.
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