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The U.S. military said Sunday it launched airstrikes around Haditha Dam in western Iraq, targeting Islamic State insurgents there for the first time in a move to prevent the group from capturing the vital dam.
U.S. officials said that while the Anbar Province dam remains in control of the Iraqis, the U.S. offensive was an effort to beat back militants who have been trying to take over key dams across the country, including the Haditha complex.
The strikes represented a broadening of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State, moving the military operations closer to the border of Syria, where the group also has been operating.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the Iraqi government had asked the U.S. to launch the airstrikes and that Iraqi forces on the ground conceived the operation.
"The dam is a critically important facility for Iraq," Hagel said. If the dam should fall into the hands of the Islamic State, that would cause serious damage and create a big risk, including against U.S. interests in Iraq, Hagel said.
He said the U.S. is continuing to explore all options for expanding the battle against the Islamic State into Syria.
Hagel spoke at a news conference in Georgia where he was meeting with defense and other government leaders. His visit comes on the heels of the two-day NATO summit in Wales.
"We conducted these strikes to prevent terrorists from further threatening the security of the dam, which remains under control of Iraqi Security Forces, with support from Sunni tribes," Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in a statement.
The dam is a major source of water and electrical power.
The military said a mix of fighter and bomber aircraft conducted four airstrikes, destroying five Islamic State Humvees, another armed vehicle, a checkpoint and damaged a militant bunker. The U.S. aircraft safely exited the strike area.
"We will continue to conduct operations as needed in support of the Iraqi Security Forces and the Sunni tribes, working with those forces securing Haditha Dam," Kirby said.
Last month Islamic State fighters were battling to capture the Haditha Dam, which has six power generators located alongside Iraq's second-largest reservoir. But, despite their attacks, Iraqi forces there backed up by local Sunni tribes have been able to hold them off.
The group was able to take control of the Mosul Dam in northern Iraq last month, but persistent U.S. airstrikes dislodged the militants. And while fighters have been trying to take it back, the U.S. has continued to use strikes to keep them at bay.
The military said Sunday it had also launched a fresh air attack against militants near the Mosul Dam.
U.S. officials have expressed concerns that militants could flood Baghdad and other large swaths of the country if they control the dams. It also would give the group control over electricity, which they could use to strengthen their control over residents.
Earlier this year, the group gained control of the Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates River and the militants used it as a weapon, opening it to flood downriver when government forces moved in on the city.
Water is a precious commodity in Iraq, a largely desert country of 32.5 million people. The decline of water levels in the Euphrates over recent years has led to electricity shortages in towns south of Baghdad, where steam-powered generators depend entirely on water levels.
On Friday and Saturday, the U.S. used a mix of attack aircraft, fighter jets and drones to conduct two airstrikes around Irbil. The strikes hit trucks and armored vehicles. Those operations brought the total number of airstrikes to 133 since early August.
The airstrikes are aimed at protecting U.S. personnel and facilities, as well protecting critical infrastructure and aiding refugees fleeing the militants.
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