Kurdish Forces Claim To Have Driven Militants From Dam

A major dam in northern Iraq, near the city of Mosul, is the latest flashpoint. Kurdish officials say their forces have driven militants from the dam. The militants say they're fighting to hang on.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn now to Iraq. We have been reporting on the effort by Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, to push back militants, the group known as the Islamic State or ISIS. A major dam in northern Iraq near the city of Mosul is now the latest flashpoint. Kurdish officials say their forces have driven militants from the dam. The militants say they are fighting to hang on. The Kurdish fighters are being aided by U.S. airstrikes and Britain now says it is stepping up its effort to support Iraq beyond humanitarian aid. Let's get the latest now from NPR's Peter Kenyon in northern Iraq. Peter, good morning.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Morning, David.

GREENE: So who is controlling this dam?

KENYON: Well, the Peshmerga commanders tell us that their units are. They secured villages around the dam Sunday and moved into the dam site itself. However, then they say, the advance slowed somewhat because bomb disposal teams were needed. They were worried about snipers as well. And there are also claims from the Islamic State itself; they posted on a Twitter account that has posted past things from them and that says they have not retreated. There's still heavy fighting going on and in fact, they still claim control. Iraqi and Kurdish officials say, no, the Peshmerga has control - but they're not saying the site is secured. The great fear of course, is that a breach of the dam could send a wall of water down the Tigris, threatening Mosul and cities further downstream.

Now, the president wrote a letter to Congress, saying even the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad could be threatened. So the stakes are obviously high and also, this is important as a matter of shifting momentum, if the dam is retaken.

GREENE: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about the momentum because for so long, we've been hearing about the Kurdish Peshmerga. You know, they were forced to retreat in the face of the Sunni Islamist fighters. Is this now their first offensive and could the momentum be changing?

KENYON: Well, I was in some Kurdish living rooms yesterday and all the talk was about this offensive. People were excited. Of course, they're hearing Kurdish media reports, which are exclusively positive. So things could still change, but basically the earlier Peshmerga retreat sent real shockwaves through this community, which has always thought of itself as the most stable part of the country. So if it's confirmed, yes, this could be a big deal here.

GREENE: You mentioned that Kurdish forces have been in villages near the dam. Do they have a plan to actually retake the city of Mosul itself from Islamist fighters, which would obviously be a big gain for the Kurds?

KENYON: It would be huge and the Peshmerga is talking it up. But of course, these battlefield plans have a way of changing very rapidly. In announcing the expanded British role in Iraq, the defense minister there said this could take months.

Now, the Kurds themselves feel that the Islamic State forces have been stretched too thin and therefore, they could collapse fairly quickly. We'll just have to see.

GREENE: And Peter, in the area of Iraq where you are - we've heard about refugees, we've heard about people being displaced, having trouble getting food, water. Is the humanitarian situation improving at all?

KENYON: Well, the aid is continuing to pour in. Some of it's vital, some of it less useful. But basically, Iraqi civilians, mainly religious minorities such as the Yazidis, are still camped out on the streets. They're in abandoned or under-construction buildings, makeshift tents and it's routinely 110, 115 here in the afternoons.

GREENE: Wow.

KENYON: So while the displaced are battling the heat now, they're worried in the future about cold and rain if this does go on for months. So it's a complicated situation. And a lot of the Yazidis say, even if the Jihadi are pushed out, they won't feel safe going back because their Arab neighbors cooperated in the killings. So there's likely to be some lasting scars here.

GREENE: All right. The latest from northern Iraq, with NPR's Peter Kenyon.

Peter, thanks very much.

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