An Islamic State offensive in northern Iraq that began Monday with a series of car bombings on Kurdish military positions has been thwarted thus far by U.S.-led airstrikes outside the critical Mosul Dam area, though the militants were advancing near the Sinjar Mountains, according to Kurdish officials.
A senior Kurdish military official said Thursday that the threat to Mosul Dam had been neutralized for now by U.S.-led air power, which badly hurt Islamic State fighters who had massed for the offensive. The United States conducted 12 airstrikes near Mosul Dam on Tuesday, according to the U.S. Central Command.
The official, Jabar Yawar, the secretary general of the Kurdish peshmerga militia, said he believed the Islamic State push to recapture the Mosul Dam and to surround Mount Sinjar was in response to the militants’ loss two weeks ago of the Rabia border crossing.
“They tried to use suicide bombers to break through the peshmerga lines on several axes, but the fortifications held and the U.S. planes have caught hundreds of their fighters in the open over the last three days,” he said.
Overnight Wednesday, the Central Command said that it had attacked four Islamic State targets south of the dam, which controls both agricultural water supplies and the electricity supply for Mosul, the city that the Islamic State has held since overrunning much of northern and central Iraq in June. The Islamic State briefly controlled the dam, but a concerted effort by the peshmerga, backed by Iraqi special forces troops and coalition airstrikes, retook the facility in August.
Yawar said that a series of French airstrikes in the area – separate from the American ones – had killed dozens of Islamic State fighters south of the dam.
But the militants overran two lightly defended Yazidi villages on Tuesday, establishing at least a partial encirclement of the large mountain range, which looms over the otherwise flat northern Iraqi desert and serves as the spiritual home to the Yazidi minority.
It was in part the flight of the Yazidis before an Islamic State advance that prompted President Barack Obama to order American aircraft to begin targeting Islamic State forces in Iraq.
A local media outlet quoted another peshmerga commander in the area as saying the French strikes had killed at least 36 militants and that hundreds of Kurdish and Yazidi militia fighters now are protecting thousands of locals who have taken refuge in the now partially surrounded mountain range.
A third Kurdish military official, whose identity is being concealed because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter, said Mount Sinjar has become a new strategic goal for the Islamic State because its forces need a place to hide from coalition aircraft.
“The loss of Rabia to the peshmerga made Daash reconsider its strategy, and now they are driving on the mountain,” the third official said, using an Arabic term for the Islamic State. “If they take the mountain it will be easier for them to hide their units there instead of the desert.”
The presence of coalition aircraft has altered the Islamic State’s previous tactic of massing large numbers of troops and overwhelming positions in a blitzkrieg-like attack.
“We have seen they have a much more difficult time forming large units for attacks on our lines because of fear of the planes and drones,” he said. “They can hide inside Mosul, but they can’t attack the dam safely in large numbers or the planes will see them.”
The Islamic State offensive comes after weeks in which northern Iraq had settled into a virtual stalemate – with the exception of the successful Kurdish effort to retake Rabia, which links Syria and Iraq along a major highway. Kurdish forces are dug into positions outside Irbil, the Kurdish capital, which was the target of an Islamic State advance in August, and along a northern axis outside of the city of Dohuk that includes Mosul Dam and Zummar, another city now in Kurdish hands.
The peshmerga initially was outmatched by the Islamic State’s heavy weaponry – much of it American-made and captured from abandoned Iraqi army stockpiles – and experience fighting in the civil war in neighboring Syria. But that imbalance steadily has been improved by coalition airstrikes and a steady influx of additional weapons and ammunition from Baghdad, which had long resisted equipping the autonomous Kurdish forces, as well as from the United States and a slew of European allies. Those armaments include advanced anti-tank weapons supplied by Germany, which began to arrive recently.
The peshmerga’s lackluster performance in early August also was a wakeup call for Kurdish officials that the once-famed fighting force had fallen into complacency after 13 years of relative peace in northern Iraq. Its organization was inefficient, arranged along tribal and clan lines and divided into two separate commands loyal to the Kurds’ two predominant – and rival – political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party, led by Kurdish President Masoud Barzani in Irbil, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, loyal to former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani in Sulimaniya.
Now, however, the peshmerga has been reorganized to centralize its command, and American advisers based at a joint operations center in Irbil are working to coordinate among its parts.
“We have more weapons, more ammunition and are seeing more advanced weapons,” Yawar said. “We have also undergone reorganization . . . and continue to make strides in this area.”