BAGHDAD – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has called upon his country’s armed forces to help the Kurdish military battle a Sunni militant offensive in northern Iraq that has caused tens of thousands of people from the minority Yazidi community to flee their homes.
It was the first sign of cooperation between Baghdad and Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, since Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, was taken over by the Islamic State militant group in June, signaling a degree of rapprochement in the face of the country’s deteriorating security crisis.
Iraq’s military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said Monday that al-Maliki has commanded the air force to provide aerial support to the Kurds in the first sign of cooperation between the two militaries since Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, was captured by the militants on June 10.
Iraq is facing its worst crisis since the 2006 civil war when the Islamic State captured large swaths of land straddling the Syria-Iraq border with the goal of establishing a self-styled caliphate.
When it overran the cities of Mosul and Tikrit in June, Iraqi security forces virtually collapsed, with police and soldiers abandoning arsenals of heavy weapons.
The Islamic State captured the northern towns of Sinjar and Zumar on Saturday, prompting an estimated 40,000 from the minority Yazidi sect to flee, said Jawhar Ali Begg, a spokesman for the community.
The Sunni militants have targeted minority communities in areas they have conquered.
“Their towns are now controlled by (Islamic State) and their shrine has been blown up,” Begg said. The militant group gave the Yazidis, who follow an ancient religion with links to Zoroastrianism, an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death, Begg added.
The United Nations said last month that more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence since June, bringing the total this year to 1.4 million, including more than 230,000 Syrian refugees. The group drove ethnic and religious minorities out of Mosul, and attacked mosques and shrines, claiming they contradicted strict Islamic teachings.
Kurdish forces have been battling with the militants for control of several towns stretching between the province of Nineveh and the Kurdish Iraqi province of Dahuk. At least 25 Kurdish fighters were killed in clashes with the militants on Sunday, and another 120 were wounded, according to Muhssin Mohamed, a Dahuk-based doctor.
A statement Monday by the Islamic State said it had captured dozens of Kurdish prisoners during the clashes and seized “large number” of weapons.
The authenticity of the statement could not be verified, but it was posted on a website used by the group.
Kurdish state-media reported late Monday that peshmerga units surrounded the town of Shangal and were able to capture it from militants seeking refuge there.
The militants were also battling ferociously to capture one of the country’s vital resources, water.
Fighters with the Islamic State launched a three-pronged attack over the weekend in a drive to capture Haditha Dam, in western Iraq, a complex with six power generators located alongside Iraq’s second-largest reservoir. At the same time, they were fighting to capture Iraq’s largest dam, Mosul Dam, in the north of the country.
Seizing the dams and the large reservoirs they hold would give the militants control over water and electricity that they could use to help build support in the territory they now rule by providing the scarce resources to residents. Or they could sell the resources as a lucrative source of revenue.
They could also use the dams as a weapon of war by flooding terrain downstream to slow Iraq’s military or disrupt life. They have done that with a smaller dam they hold closer to Baghdad. But with the larger dams, there are limits on this tactic since it would also flood areas that the insurgents hold.
On Friday, the fighters unleashed a powerful attack from three sides on the town of Haditha in western Anbar province. Suicide attackers tried but failed to detonate an oil tanker and several trucks packed with explosives. The aim was to obliterate the final line of defense between the militants and Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, said Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, the commander of Anbar Operations Command.
For a brief moment, it seemed all was lost. The Sunni militants seized the army command headquarters in town, with very little stopping them from reaching the dam. But some local Sunni tribes who oppose the militants and feared for their livelihoods if the dam were captured sent fighters to reinforce the 2,000 soldiers guarding the town, allowing for a narrow victory. At least 35 militants and 10 soldiers were killed in clashes Friday, Fleih said.
But the militants have been fighting every day since trying to take the town, according to four senior military sources in Anbar province.
Only 10 km (6 miles) remain between the militants and the dam.
The jihadis are also closing in on the Mosul Dam — or Saddam Dam as it was once known — located north of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, which fell to the militants on June 10. Fighting intensified in the region Sunday after the nearby towns of Zumar and Sinjar fell to the militants.
Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have managed to hold the fighters off for now, but the growing strength and savvy of these Islamic militants is raising grave concerns.
The peshmerga are “under a great deal of pressure now” as they defend a 150-km (80-mile) front line against the Islamic State along the edges of the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north,” said Maj. Gen. Jabar Yawer, the official spokesman of the Kurdistan Region Guard Forces.
“God forbid, if something happens that results in the destruction of the dam, it will be very, very dangerous,” Yawer said.
Earlier this year, the group’s fighters captured the smaller Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates when they seized the nearby city of Fallujah. Repeatedly, the militants have used it as a weapon, opening it to flood downriver when government forces move in on the city.
Worst hit has been the area of Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of Baghdad. In May, some 12,000 families lost crops and many fled their homes, worsening Iraq’s growing crisis of internal displacement. The Special Representative for the U.N. Secretary-General in Iraq called the incident a “water war,” and called on Iraqi forces and local tribes to team up and take back Iraqi waterways.
Doing that with Hadith and Mosul Dams is more problematic, since militant-controlled lie downstream. But damage to either could be disastrous, particularly in the case of the Mosul Dam. It has millions of cubic meters of water pent up behind it on the Tigris River, which — some 370 km (220 miles) downstream — runs through the heart of Baghdad.
“Everything under it will be under five to 10 meters of water . . . including Baghdad itself,” said Ali Khedery, head of the Dubai-based consultancy Dragoman Partners and a longtime adviser to the U.S. military, government and companies in Iraq. “It would be catastrophic.”
Dams are critical in Iraq for generating electricity, regulating river flow and providing irrigation. Water is a precious commodity in this largely desert country of 32.5 million people. The decline of water levels in the Euphrates over recent years has led to electricity shortages in towns south of Baghdad, where steam-powered generators depend entirely on water levels.
Water has been used as a weapon in the past. After Shiite Muslims rose up against then-President Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War, he retaliated by drying out parts of wetlands in the south of the country that had once generated farming revenues for its Shiite inhabitants.
Water is not the first resource the Islamic State has narrowed in on as it swept over much of northern and western Iraq and parts of neighboring Syria the past months. The group has captured oil fields and pipelines in Syria and has sold off crude oil, helping fund its drive across both countries.
If it captures the dams, the militants are likely to try to use its electricity and water resources to build up support in nearby areas it controls, where residents often complain of shortages. Or it could try to snarl electricity service elsewhere.
Any disruption to the Mosul Dam “would destabilize the electricity system of northern Iraq,” added Paul Sullivan, an economist and Middle East expert at National Defense University in Washington. “This station is an integral part of the entire electricity grid of Iraq.”