IRBIL, Iraq – Kurdish Iraqi fighters were reported to have taken back much of a strategic dam in northern Iraq on Sunday as the United States stepped up its bombardment of Islamic militant positions in the region.
Late Sunday, news agencies quoting Kurdish officials reported the gains at the Mosul Dam, a huge structure on the Tigris River and a key source of power and water for northern Iraq. Regaining control of the dam would be a major victory for Kurdish authorities, who were embarrassed in early August when Islamic State fighters overran the dam and other areas nominally under Kurdish control, forcing a hasty withdrawal of peshmerga forces, as the Kurdish fighters are known.
The expanding presence of U.S. air power has clearly buoyed the spirits of Kurdish fighters, who came under considerable criticism at home for their retreat in the face of the Islamic State advance.
Kurdish fighters on Sunday also took back several villages from the militants, including the town of Tel Skuf, according to news reports in Iraq.
In Washington, the Pentagon said U.S. warplanes had stepped up attacks near the dam, conducting 14 strikes on Sunday, the second day of the joint operation with Iraqi and Kurdish troops.
The airstrikes, which for the first time included bombers along with fighters and drones, were the most carried out by the U.S. in a single day since the attacks began two weeks ago.
The Rudaw Kurdish news site quoted a peshmerga commander as saying the Kurds had launched a “wide-ranging” assault in coordination with U.S. airstrikes. But the commander and Western officials monitoring the fighting said progress was being slowed by explosives planted in the ground by fighters of the Islamic State, an al-Qaida breakaway group.
U.S. strikes near the Mosul Dam on Sunday damaged or destroyed 10 armed vehicles, seven Humvees, two armored personnel carriers and a checkpoint, U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
In announcing the attacks, Central Command broadened the justification for them, for the first time saying that the United States was “supporting” Iraqi and Kurdish troops on the ground.
President Barack Obama has said repeatedly that military action would be limited to protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq and to give humanitarian aid.
But the airstrikes have intensified since the resignation last week of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom the White House had sought for months to force from power.
The stepped-up military effort had been promised by the White House if Maliki left office.