Kurdish fighters, backed by Iraqi forces and a new wave of US air strikes, have pressed their offensive against jihadist rebels as President Barack Obama urged a joint counterterrorism effort.
Obama on Monday hailed the Kurds’ recapture of a major dam outside Mosul but warned Baghdad that “the wolf is at the door” and said it must move quickly to build an inclusive government.
Securing the dam was the biggest prize yet clawed back from the so-called “Islamic State” since it launched a major offensive in northern Iraq in June, sweeping aside Iraqi security forces.
“Iraqi and Kurdish forces took the lead on the ground and performed with courage and determination,” Obama said, warning that the dam would have devastated cities downstream had it been breached.
“So this operation demonstrates that Iraqi and Kurdish forces are capable of working together and taking the fight to ISIL.
“If they continue to do so, they will have the strong support of the United States of America,” he promised, in his clearest signal yet that the 10-day-old US air campaign against IS is far from over.
Obama said that Iraq’s new premier Haidar al-Abadi should rush to build an inclusive government to undercut support for extremists and underpin international action against the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIL or ISIS.
“We will continue to pursue a long-term strategy to turn the tide against ISIL by supporting the new Iraqi government and working with key partners in the region,” he said.
90 targets destroyed
US military aircraft have carried out 35 air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq over the past three days, destroying more than 90 targets, the Pentagon said.
The strikes marked the most intensive US bombardments of IS positions since they began on August 8.
The jihadists, who have declared a “caliphate” in a region straddling the Iraq-Syria border, also came under attack in their Syrian stronghold of Raqa by Syria’s air force for a second straight day.
In Iraq, “the planes are striking and the peshmerga are advancing”, a Kurdish fighter said near the shore of the lake formed by the vast Mosul dam.
Jets flew overhead, as smoke rose from the site of a strike that a peshmerga member said targeted an entrance to the dam.
“In the beginning, they surprised us with their offensive. But now, we know their tactics, and they can’t take another yard from us,” Major General Sardar Kamal said at the frontline.
Fighting also broke out in an area to the south as engineering teams worked to clear booby traps and bombs left by jihadists, said Kawa Khatari, an official from Iraq’s main Kurdish party.
A senior peshmerga officer said there was sporadic fighting in the town of Tal Kayf southeast of the dam, and that only a “small number” of jihadists remained in the dam area.
Iraqi security spokesman Lieutenant General Qassem Atta said the dam was entirely liberated in a joint operation by Iraqi “anti-terrorism forces and peshmerga forces with aerial support”.
Pope calls for collective action
While Washington and London hailed the breakthrough and promised more support, Pope Francis sounded a note of caution, calling for collective action through the United Nations.
In London, Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain remained open to “supplying equipment” for the fight against Islamic State.
However he told a meeting of his government’s emergency committee Cobra that “this is not about getting dragged into a war in Iraq, we will not be putting combat forces on the ground”, a Downing Street spokesperson said.
“We and other countries in Europe are determined to help the government of Iraq combat this new and very extreme form of terrorism,” he was quoted as saying.
Two months of violence have brought Iraq to the brink of breakup, and world powers are relieved by the departure of divisive premier Nuri al-Maliki, who stepped down last week, hoping his successor will be a unifying figure.
In the north, members of minority groups including Christians, Yazidis, Shabak and Turkmen, remain under threat of kidnap or death at the hands of the jihadists, rights groups say.
Amnesty International, which has been documenting mass abductions in the Sinjar area, says IS fighters have kidnapped thousands of Yazidis in this month’s offensive.