TBILISI, Georgia — In launching a fresh series of airstrikes against Sunni fighters in Iraq over the weekend, the Defense Department described a mission to stop militants from seizing an important dam on the Euphrates River and prevent them from unleashing floodwaters toward the capital, Baghdad.
But the strikes on Sunni militant positions near the Haditha Dam deepen the American military engagement in Iraq as the United States seeks to roll back advances of the extremist group known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Near the dam, American warplanes pounded ISIS armored vehicles and antiaircraft artillery late Saturday and early Sunday while Iraqi ground troops attacked villages held by ISIS fighters. It was exactly the kind of operation that President Obama described at a news conference in Wales on Friday when he talked about how the United States and its allies could fight ISIS: Use American warplanes to drop bombs while coordinating with local ground troops to reclaim and hold territory.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, “We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam.” The strikes, the statement said, came “under authority to protect U.S. personnel and facilities, support humanitarian efforts and support Iraqi forces that are acting in furtherance of these objectives.”
The strikes near the Haditha Dam followed a pattern established in recent days of air campaigns aided by locals, including Shiite militiamen who fought against United States forces during the American occupation of Iraq.
Two weeks ago, the American military carried out airstrikes that allowed Iraqi and Kurdish forces to reclaim the Mosul Dam, in northern Iraq, which had fallen into ISIS hands. It has also struck the group’s fighters besieging the Turkmen city of Amerli.
ISIS had not made it to the Haditha Dam, but had been advancing for several weeks, American officials said. That worried Iraqi officials, who maintained that the Haditha Dam was as important as the Mosul Dam because it is closer to Baghdad.
The president commented on the battle against the Islamic State during a news conference at the NATO summit in Wales.
Video Credit By Reuters on Publish Date September 5, 2014. Image CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
Obama administration officials continued to insist, even after American warplanes bombed ISIS positions near several villages close to Haditha, that the United States had not expanded the mission beyond the limited goals set out by the president a month ago when he authorized airstrikes. At the time, Mr. Obama characterized the Iraq campaign as a limited one to break the ISIS siege of the minority Yazidi population stranded on Mount Sinjar in the north, and to protect American citizens, official personnel and facilities in Erbil, the Kurdish capital, and in Baghdad.
The Haditha Dam is 175 miles from Baghdad, 220 miles from Erbil and 270 miles from Mount Sinjar.
“I think the strikes the United States took are very much in line with what President Obama said were the guiding principles of military action in Iraq,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Sunday at a news conference with the Georgian defense minister in Tbilisi. “If that dam would fall into ISIL’s hands,” he said, using another acronym for ISIS, “or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that would cause would be very significant, and it would put a significant, additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq.”
A break of the Haditha Dam, military officials said, could flood Baghdad’s airport and threaten Americans in Iraq. That rationale is similar to the one used when American warplanes bombed ISIS militants who controlled the Mosul Dam. But such a definition gives the White House wide latitude to support Iraqi forces in a sustained military offensive against the group across the country.
The battles over the two dams are part of a war for water that ISIS has waged since it swept into Iraq, bent on carving out a caliphate in territory spanning Iraq and Syria. The dams, which control the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, have become a valued asset for both sides.
The towns struck by the United States over the weekend, in Anbar Province, were captured by ISIS extremists in late June, shortly after they stormed the northern city of Mosul. The territory the militants held — which included the towns of Qaim, Rawa, Ana and Barwana — gave ISIS a supply route to Syria along a strategic highway, and put its fighters within reach of the Haditha Dam.
The weekend offensive included Sunni fighters from the Al-Jaghaifa and Albu Mahal tribes, and Iraqi units including special forces and units called up from the southern town of Hilla, according to Iraqi soldiers and officers. Using tanks, artillery and mortar fire, they concentrated their attack on ISIS fighters in Barwana, seven miles south of the dam.
Approaching Barwana from the north and south, engineering units worked to disarm improvised explosive devices and booby traps, which have become a hallmark of the militants. One soldier, fighting in an area across the Euphrates from Barwana, described “heavy crossfire” as the fighting gained in intensity early Sunday.
At one point, a mortar round injured several senior Iraqi officials, including the governor of Anbar Province, Ahmed al-Dulaimi, and the mayor of Haditha. Late Sunday, the militants remained in the town and were putting up fierce resistance from the neighborhood of Al-Khafsa, officers said.
Even so, Iraqi military officials sounded triumphant. “We have tried many times to liberate Barwana but have failed,” said a senior military officer fighting in the town on Sunday. “We would have failed again without the U.S. strikes.”
The militants, who had also come under attack from Iraqi warplanes, retained control of Rana, Awa and the border town of Qaim, reflecting the resilience and strength of a force that has stockpiled weapons and matériel as ISIS has routed military units, militias and rival insurgent groups.
A newly released field report by a private firm that investigates arms trafficking documented small arms and rockets captured from ISIS that appeared to have been provided to other combatants by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The findings by the firm, Conflict Armament Research in England, provided a new level of detail of ISIS’ apparent capture and diversion of military equipment sent into the region by foreign governments, which have often found the irregular forces and local government troops they have sponsored to be unreliable and prone to corruption, defection or defeat.
Among the former ISIS weapons that the firm examined were M16 and M4 rifles stamped “Property of U.S. Govt.” Such weapons are also common in the hands of irregular Shiite forces in Iraq, where the United States provided hundreds of thousands of small arms to local and state forces during its long occupation.
The weapons were often provided hastily or with scant accountability. Many of Iraq’s military and police forces have since been defeated by ISIS or have abandoned their bases and posts, yielding equipment provided by American taxpayers and exposing weaknesses in the Pentagon’s once-heralded force-building measures.
The firm also found that ISIS had M79 anti-tank rockets from the former Yugoslavia that were identical to M79 rockets provided by Saudi Arabia to rebels in Syria. Many Syrian rebels have said weapons provided to them by foreign supporters have been captured by ISIS or sold or traded to ISIS by corrupt members of the rebel ranks.