WASHINGTON – The United States continued its broad military assault on targets of the Islamic State on Monday after scoring a significant victory with Kurdish forces, together pushing back the Islamist army from Iraq’s largest energy source at Mosul Dam.
After targeting two-dozen assets of the Islamic State over the weekend, US fighter jets, drones, and bombers targeted another nine fighting positions on Monday, including a checkpoint, six armed vehicles, and an artillery battery.
The Kurds now say they are in control of the facility, though reports suggest Islamic State fighters may still be present at the site.
A Pentagon spokesman said operations around the dam were “ongoing,” and that he was not prepared yet to say whether the dam had been fully retaken by Iraqi forces.
The White House informed Congress of its expanded operation and called the military action, ordered by US President Barack Obama, “consistent” with his stated goal of protecting US assets and personnel in the country – specifically in the cities of Erbil, where Washington maintains a consulate, and Baghdad, host of an American Embassy larger in terms of geographic space than the Vatican.
Erbil, an oil-boom town in northern Iraq, is also home to thousands of American contractors, servicemen, and entrepreneurs working in the gas industry. The city is the nominal capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan regional government.
Islamic State took to Twitter on Monday to exclaim the deaths of “dozens” of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the capture of 170. The claim has not been independently verified.
The collapse of Mosul Dam, intentional or not, could have wreaked havoc on the population centers downstream – including Baghdad, the White House said, in its justification for action.
Yet no convincing was necessary for many congressmen on Capitol Hill, who have called on the president to exert American power in the region in order to fight back against Islamic State.
Members of the House and Senate foreign relations and intelligence committees took to the Sunday shows to express grave concern over the security threat posed by the group to the homeland. One member, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, said that threat is greater than what faced America leading up to the September 11 attacks.
“The threat is so wide and it’s so deep. We just didn’t have that before 9/11,” Rogers said.
Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) on Monday came out with a rare statement in praise of the president.
“We applaud President Obama’s decision to step up US air strikes in support of Kurdish and Arab Iraqi forces who are fighting to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIS,” the senators said. “These actions should now be expanded into a broader strategy to degrade ISIS both in Syria and Iraq, as we have been advocating.”
But the Obama administration has given no indication it is prepared to strike Islamic State inside Syria itself, where the group conducts its most aggressive recruitment, and where its leadership holds court, in its “capital” city of Raqqa.
The State Department defended this strategy on Monday. Operationally, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, Syria poses a fundamentally different military challenge.
The Iraqi government has also explicitly invited US military intervention, Harf added, noting that the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad still has “capabilities” that could hinder a US effort.
The Pentagon still has “potential tactical targets” that it might hit, Harf told reporters, while declining to identify potential targets from the podium before future strikes occur.
The US is also working to cut off Islamic State’s funding sources, Harf continued. Two Islamic State officials, including its spokesman, were officially blacklisted as “Specially Designated Global Terrorists,” a designation that freezes their assets and ability to travel internationally.
“A lot of [Islamic State funding], unfortunately, comes from kidnappings and ransoms,” she said.
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