BAGHDAD — Militants from the Islamic State group seized Iraq’s largest hydroelectric dam Thursday, giving them control of enormous power and water resources and leverage over the Tigris River that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
The dam seizure was the latest in a string of victories by the Sunni radical group as it expands its hold in northern Iraq, driving back Kurdish forces, sending minority communities fleeing and unleashing bombings that have killed more than 90 people in the capital over the past two days.
After a week of attempts, the radical Islamist gunmen successfully stormed the Mosul Dam on Thursday and forced Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area, residents living near the dam said in interviews, speaking on condition of anonymity because of safety concerns.
The al-Qaida breakaway group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming that it had taken control of the dam and vowing to continue “the march in all directions,” as it expands the Islamic state, or Caliphate, it has imposed over broad swathes of territory straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border.
The group said it has seized a total of 17 Iraqi cities, towns and targets — including the dam and a military base — over the past five days. The statement could not be verified, but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group.
Halgurd Hekmat, a spokesman for the Kurdish fighters, said in an interview that clashes around the dam were ongoing, and he didn’t know who currently had control over it.
The Sunni militant group has established its idea of an Islamic state in the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law. Iraqi government forces, Kurds and allied Sunni tribal militiamen have been struggling to dislodge the Islamic State militants and its Sunni allies with little apparent success.
The Mosul Dam — once known as the Saddam Dam for ousted dictator Saddam Hussein — is located just north of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, which fell to the militants June 10.
The Kurdish fighters, known as the peshmerga, had initially managed to stall the militant advances, but their defense has waned in recent weeks. On Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi air force to provide aerial support for the Kurds, in a rare show of cooperation between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government that underscored the serious nature of the crisis.
The seizing of dams and reservoirs gives the militants control over water and electricity that they can 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.
There are also fears that the militants could release the dam waters and devastate the country all the way to the capital, Baghdad, though maintaining the dam’s power and water supplies is key to their attempts to build a state.
For some Baghdad residents, the Mosul Dam takeover represents a vulnerable artery leading into the capital. Zainab Mustafa, a Baghdad housewife, said she felt great anxiety over the dam takeover and had little faith in the central government’s ability to protect its citizens.
“I think the danger is real, and this time we will not have a place to hide,” she said. “People here in Baghdad are now really afraid after the takeover of the Mosul Dam by the insurgents.”united nations - Middle East - Iraq - United Nations Security Council - Saddam Hussein - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - Baghdad