Sunni militants from the Islamic State group on Thursday seized Iraq's largest dam, placing them in control of enormous power and water resources and access to the river that runs through the heart of Baghdad.
After a week of attempts, the radical Islamist gunmen successfully stormed the Mosul Dam and forced Kurdish forces to withdraw from the area, residents living near the dam told The Associated Press. They spoke anonymously for safety concerns.
The Islamic State group posted a statement online Thursday, confirming that they had taken control of the dam and vowed to continue "the march in all directions," adding that it will not "give up the great Caliphate project." The group added that it has seized a total of 17 cities, towns and targets — including the dam — over the past five days. The statement could not be verified but it was posted on a site frequently used by the group.
Officials from Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region that has the only forces opposing the extremists in the north did not respond to calls.
The al-Qaida-breakaway 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 — or Saddam Dam as it was once known — is 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.
The seizing of dams and reservoirs gives 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.
The Kurdish peshmerga units had initially managed to stall the militant advances, but their defence has waned in recent weeks.
On Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ordered the Iraqi air force to provide aerial support to the Kurds, in a rare show of co-operation between Baghdad and the Kurdish regional government that underscored the serious nature of this crisis.
Iraq's second largest dam, the Haditha Dam in the western Anbar province, has also been at risk of takeover but remains in the hands of the Iraqi military.