U.S. warplanes carried out five strikes on Islamic State insurgents menacing Iraq’s Haditha Dam on Sunday, witnesses and officials said, widening what President Barack Obama called a campaign to curb and ultimately defeat the jihadist movement.
Obama has branded Islamic State an acute threat to the West as well as the Middle East and said that key NATO allies stood ready to back Washington in action against the well-armed sectarian force, which has seized expanses of northern Iraq and eastern Syria and declared a border-blurring religious caliphate.
The leader of a pro-Iraqi government paramilitary force in western Iraq said the air strikes wiped out an Islamic State patrol trying to attack the dam – Iraq’s second biggest hydroelectric facility that also provides millions with water.
“They (the air strikes) were very accurate. There was no collateral damage … If Islamic State had gained control of the dam, many areas of Iraq would have been seriously threatened, even (the capital) Baghdad,” Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha told Reuters.
The aerial assault drove Islamic State fighters away from the dam, according to a police intelligence officer in the vast western province of Anbar, a hotbed of Islamist insurgency.
The U.S. military said in a statement that the strikes destroyed four IS Humvees, four IS armed vehicles, two of which were carrying antiaircraft artillery, an IS fighting position, one IS command post and an IS defensive fighting position. All aircraft left the strike areas safely, the Pentagon said.
The strikes were Washington’s first reported offensive into Anbar since it started attacks on Islamic State forces in the north of Iraq in August.
Almost three years after U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq and 11 years after their invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the war on Islamic State is drawing Washington back into the middle of Iraq’s power struggles and bloody sectarian strife.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the strikes on the Sunni Muslim insurgents had been carried out at the request of the Shi’ite Muslim-led central government in Baghdad.
“If that dam would fall into (Islamic State’s) hands 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,” Hagel told reporters during a trip to Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi.