U.S. Airstrikes Seek To Turn Back Militant Tide From Iraqi Dam

Tess Vigeland talks to NPR's Peter Kenyon, who's in Dohuk, Iraq, about reports of airstrikes on a critical dam near the northern city of Mosul.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. A senior U.S. official says airstrikes were carried out in northern Iraq today near the Mosul Dam. Sunni Muslim fighters, calling themselves the Islamic State, seized the hydroelectric dam earlier this month. A breach of the dam could threaten hundreds of thousands of people, so regaining control of it is strategically important. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the northern city of Duhok. Peter, what is the significance of this development?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: What we're hearing from a Kurdish Peshmerga commander, Mohadin Maruf (ph) is that today's airstrikes hits targets to the east, south and west of the dam, and that this is a prelude to a ground operation to take back control of it - away from the Islamist fighters who now are in charge. He didn't precisely say the ground offensive was already underway but said more than once that good news is coming soon. Now losing this damn was a big embarrassment for the Peshmerga. They're eager to get it back. They've been working with the Iraqi army about coordinating ground operations. And another Peshmerga officer I spoke with today said they hope they can count on more U.S. air support as well.

VIGELAND: So retaking this dam is clearly a top priority for Iraq. What kind of risks are involved?

KENYON: There're some big risks, the greatest being that an intense military operation could wind up breaching the dam. This is an earthenware dam on top of a not especially stable foundation. It was already slated for repair before Iraq lost control of it. So the Iraqi and Kurdish forces will have to be careful to do battle with the Islamist fighters without causing the very disaster they're trying to avoid, which is releasing all this water on the towns and cities below.

VIGELAND: Peter, the U.S. started airstrikes to protect the religious minority Yazidis, who were surrounded by fighters the terrorist group ISIS. Now today we hear reports that more than 80 Yazidis have been killed. Can you tell us more about what happened?

KENYON: We've heard harrowing stories about Kojo village that's near Sinjar. The mayor's brother says he's got names of all 80 men gunned down by the Islamic State fighters for refusing to convert to Islam and the names of the women and children taken to the Islamist-controlled town of Tal Afar, where Yazidis fear they'll be sold or handed out as brides. The man we spoke with had four sons killed and lost for daughters-in-law. And everywhere we went today, we heard the question why aren't the Americans protecting us? But we're also hearing about collaborators from nearby Arab villages here helping the Islamic fighters carry out their bloody orders.

VIGELAND: And what do we know about the refugees who did manage to escape?

KENYON: Well, we were in Zakho today - that's up near the border with Turkey - and displaced Yazidis are everywhere - in schools, in camps, in under-construction building, in parking lots, in trucks. There's been a generous effort to help them, but most are arriving with nothing, not even identity papers that can be crucial to getting some of the aid. We met one survivor of an Islamist mass shooting. He was shot multiple times but still managed to somehow get up by Mount Sinjar and eventually to freedom. He says the man who gave the order to fire was a former Arab neighbor, someone who knew by name. This is why so many Yazidis say they can't live in Iraq anymore.

VIGELAND: NPR's Peter Kenyon in the northern Iraqi city of Duhok. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome.

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