|Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on their way to the Mosul dam . (AFP)
Baghdad, Aug. 18 (Reuters): Iraqi Kurdish forces said they had recaptured the country’s biggest dam from Islamic State militants today, although an employee at the site said jihadist fighters still controlled key points on the vulnerable structure.
Hoshiyar Zebari — a Kurd who has been foreign minister in the outgoing Iraqi government — also said officials from his community would join talks on forming a new, inclusive administration considered vital for combating the Sunni militants who have overrun much of the country.
The Islamists’ seizure of the Mosul hydroelectric dam in northern Iraq marked a stunning setback for Baghdad’s Shia-led authorities and raised fears the militants could cut power and water supplies, or even blow the shaky structure, causing huge loss of life and damage down the Tigris river valley.
Iraqi officials hailed what they said was a strategic victory in regaining control of the dam, and announced that the next objective would be to win back Mosul itself, the biggest city in northern Iraq which lies 40km downstream.
However, any lingering threat to the dam from IS fighters would like a gun to the city's head, holding it hostage.
Zebari said forces from the Kurds’ autonomous region had captured the dam — blighted by structural problems since it was built by West German engineers for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s — with help from US air strikes nearby in a difficult operation.
“Taking the dam took longer than expected because the Islamic State had planted land mines,” he told Reuters.
Baghdad officials expressed their determination to turn the tide against the Islamic State, whose campaign to create a regional caliphate has threatened to tear Iraq apart.
“The new tactic of launching a quick attack shrouded by secrecy proved successful and we are determined to keep following the new assault tactics with help of intelligence provided by Americans,” Sabah Nouri, a spokesman for Iraq's counter-terrorism unit, told Reuters.
“The next stop will be Mosul.”
An employee at the dam, however, contested the government’s version of events. “Islamic State fighters are still in full control over the dam’s facilities and most of them are taking shelter near the sensitive places of the dam to avoid air strikes,” the employee told Reuters.
The employee gave no further details. However, engineers have repeatedly expressed concern about the state of the 3.5km-wide dam since Saddam was overthrown in 2003.
A 2007 US Army Corps of Engineers report obtained by the Washington Post said the dam, which blocks the Tigris and holds 12 billion cubic metres of water, could flood two cities killing tens of thousands of people if were destroyed or collapsed.
A wall of water could surge as far as Baghdad, 400 km away. At the time, Iraqi officials described these warnings as alarmist and said measures were being taken to shore up the dam that has been weakened by cavities.