BAGHDAD — In a significant expansion of the air campaign in Iraq, U.S. warplanes and armed drones launched airstrikes near Mosul Dam on Saturday in the first joint operation with Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces attempting to retake the strategic northern facility from Islamist militants, U.S. officials said.
Two days after the resignation of controversial Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which U.S. officials said cleared the way for greater military assistance to Iraq, American warplanes carried out several attacks to offer air cover to Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish peshmerga fighters trying to regain control of Iraq's largest hydroelectric facility, a U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times.
U.S. Central Command said in a statement that warplanes had conducted nine airstrikes Saturday near the dam and the city of Irbil, the heaviest day of attacks since the current air campaign began, destroying or damaging "four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armored vehicle."
U.S. officials said the operation, which stretched the geographic area where U.S. warplanes are attacking by hundreds of miles, did not stray beyond the limits President Barack Obama has placed around military action in Iraq. Obama has repeatedly said such action would be limited to protecting American personnel, preventing "genocide" and providing humanitarian aid.
A U.S. official said the strikes were supportive of both the humanitarian mission and the need to protect U.S. personnel due to the damage that could be wrought from the militants' control of the dam.
A second U.S. official said no U.S. forces were on the ground near the dam. The officials asked not to be identified while discussing ongoing military operations.
The stepped-up air campaign came amid reports of a fresh massacre by the marauding fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria against members of the minority Yazidi sect. The militants' encirclement of the Yazidis atop remote Mount Sinjar prompted Obama to begin the airstrikes this month.
Iraqi officials said militants entered the village of Kocho near the town of Sinjar on Friday and killed at least 80 men while taking hundreds of women and children captive. The militants had surrounded Kocho for several days and given the Yazidis, whom they consider heretics, a deadline to convert to Islam, said Mahma Khalil, a Yazidi lawmaker. Khalil cited accounts by two survivors who feigned death, then escaped.