Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS or ISIL) seized Iraq's biggest dam, an oilfield and three more towns on Sunday after inflicting their first major defeat on Kurdish forces since taking much of northern Iraq in June.
Capture of the electricity-generating Mosul Dam, after an offensive taking barely 24 hours, could give militants from ISIS – which now calls itself the Islamic State – the ability to flood major Iraqi cities or withhold water from farms, raising the stakes in their bid to topple Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.
"The terrorist gangs of the Islamic State have taken control of Mosul Dam after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces without a fight," said Iraqi state television.
But a Kurdish official in Washington told Reuters the dam was still under the control of Kurdish "peshmerga" troops, although he said towns around the dam had fallen to Islamic State forces.
"The situation has taken a turn for the worse over the weekend," said Karwan Zebari, an official with the Kurdistan Regional Government's office in Washington.
He said peshmerga fighters were preparing for a "major offensive" on Sunday night to re-take control of towns near the dam.
The swift withdrawal of the peshmerga troops would seem to be a severe blow to one of the few forces in Iraq that, until now, had stood firm against the Sunni Islamist fighters who aim to redraw the borders of the Middle East.
ISIS sees Iraq's majority Shi'ites as apostates who deserve to be killed, also seized three towns and the Ain Zalah oilfield, adding to the four already under its control that provide funding for operations.
Initially strong Kurdish resistance evaporated after the start of an offensive to take the town of Zumar. The Islamists then hoisted their black flags there, a ritual that has often preceded mass executions of their captured opponents and the imposition of an ideology even al Qaeda finds excessively harsh.
Two people who live near Mosul Dam told Reuters Kurdish troops had loaded their vehicles with belongings including air conditioners and fled.
ISIS fighters attacked Zumar from three directions in pick-up trucks mounted with weapons, defeating Kurdish forces that had poured reinforcements into the town, witnesses said.
ISIS later also seized the town of Sinjar, where witnesses said residents had fled after Kurdish fighters put up little resistance. It was not immediately clear why the Kurds, usually known as formidable fighters, pulled back without a fight.
On its Twitter site, ISIS posted a picture of one of its masked fighters holding up a pistol and sitting at the abandoned desk of the mayor of Sinjar. Behind him was the image of a famous Kurdish guerrilla leader.
In a statement on its website, ISIS said it had killed scores of peshmerga, the Kurdish fighters whose name means "those who confront death". Those deaths could not be independently verified.
"Hundreds fled leaving vehicles and a huge number of weapons and munitions and the brothers control many areas," the Islamic State statement said. "The fighters arrived in the border triangle between Iraq, Syria and Turkey."
ISIS has systematically blown up Shi'ite mosques and shrines in territory it has seized, fuelling levels of sectarian violence unseen since the very worst weeks of Iraq's 2006-2007 civil war.
The group has stalled in its drive to reach Baghdad, halting just before the town of Samarra, 100 kms (62 miles) north of the capital.
(FRANCE 24 with Reuters)
Date created : 2014-08-04