IS fighters repairing Mosul dam as Kurds gear up for defense
BAGHDAD: Islamic State insurgents who seized Iraq’s biggest dam in an offensive that has caused international consternation have brought in engineers for repairs, witnesses said on Saturday, as nervous Kurds stocked up on arms to defend their enclave nearby.
The militants have captured wide swathes of northern Iraq since June, executing captives, displacing tens of thousands of people and drawing the first US airstrikes in the region since Washington withdrew troops in 2011.
After routing Kurdish forces this week, Islamic State militants are just 30 minutes’ drive from Arbil, the Kurdish regional capital which up to now has been spared the sectarian bloodshed that has scarred other parts of Iraq for a decade.
Employees of foreign oil firms in Arbil were flying out. Kurds were snapping up AK-47 assault rifles in arms markets for fear of imminent attack, although these had been ineffective against the superior firepower of the Islamic State fighters.
Given the Islamic State threat, a source in the Kurdistan Regional Government said it had received extra supplies of heavy weaponry from the Baghdad federal government “and other governments” in the past few days, but declined to elaborate.
An engineer at Mosul dam told Reuters that Islamic State fighters had brought in engineers to repair an emergency power line to the city, Iraq’s biggest in the north, that had been cut off four days ago, causing power outages and water shortages.
“They are gathering people to work at the dam,” he said.
A dam administrator said that militants were putting up the trademark Islamic State black flags and patrolling with flatbed trucks mounted with machine guns to protect the facility they seized from Kurdish forces earlier this week.
Almost unopposed by US-trained Iraqi government forces who fled by the thousands, the insurgents swept through the region and have threatened to march on Baghdad with Iraqi military tanks, armored personnel carriers and machine guns they seized.
In their latest offensive, they also grabbed a fifth oilfield that will help them fund operations, in addition to several towns and the dam, which could allow them to flood cities and cut off vital water and electricity supplies.
The semi-autonomous Kurdish region has until now been the only part of Iraq to survive the past decade of civil war without a serious security threat.
Its vaunted “peshmerga” fighters — those who “confront death” — also controlled wide stretches of territory outside the autonomous zone, which served as sanctuary for fleeing Christians and other minorities when Islamic State fighters stormed into the region last month.
But the past week saw the peshmerga crumble in the face of Islamic State fighters, who have heavy weapons seized from fleeing Iraqi troops and are flush with cash looted from banks.
However, oil production from Iraqi Kurdistan — estimated at some 360,000 barrels per day in June — remained unaffected by the Islamic State incursions, its Ministry of Natural Resources said on Saturday.
A UN relief spokesman said some 200,000 people fleeing the militants’ advance had reached the town of Dohuk on the Tigris River in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tens of thousands had fled further north to the Turkish border, Turkish officials said.