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ISIS in Iraq: U.S. expands air campaign to Haditha Dam

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.

Obama will lay out plans for full U.S. strategy against ISIS on Wednesday

The U.S. has stepped up its efforts to drive back advancing ISIS forces, shown here in Raqqa, Syria in June, in northern Iraq as they threaten to take another major hydroelectric dam. (Associated Press)

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.

The strikes represented a broadening of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State militants, moving the military operations closer to the border of Syria, where the group also has been operating.

Speaking in Georgia where he's meeting with government and defence officials, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that if the dam were to fall into the militant's hands "or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that that would cause would be very significant and it would put a significant additional and big risk into the mix in Iraq" including U.S. interests there.

At the same time, however, Hagel rejected the suggestion that the Haditha strikes opened up a new front in the war against the Islamic State group or that it represented an escalation of the U.S. military operations. 

Obama to lay out strategy

U.S. President Barack Obama will begin laying out a strategy this week to defeat Islamic State militants, meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday and giving a speech Wednesday, the eve of the 13th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil.

We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat them.- U.S. President Barack Obama on ISIS

"I just want the American people to understand the nature of the threat and how we're going to deal with it and to have confidence that we'll be able to deal with it," he said in the interview conducted Saturday with NBC's Meet the Press shortly after his return from a NATO summit in Wales. 

Obama restated his opposition to sending U.S. ground troops to engage in direct combat with the militants, who have laid claim to large swaths of territory in Iraq, targeted religious and ethnic minority groups, and threatened U.S. personnel and interests in the region.

At Obama's direction, the U.S. military has conducted more than 130 airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq in the past month. In retaliation, the group recently beheaded two American journalists it had been holding hostage in Syria, where the organization also operates.

'Systematically' degrading ISIS

Lawmakers have pressed Obama to expand the airstrikes into Syria. He has resisted so far, but said he has asked his military advisers for options for pursuing the group there.

In the interview, Obama said the U.S. would not go after the Islamic State group alone, but would operate as part of an international coalition and continue airstrikes to support ground efforts that would be carried out by Iraqi and Kurdish troops.

Obama's emerging strategy depends on the formation of a new government in Iraq, as well as cooperation and contributions from regional partners, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey. Obama said he expected the Iraqi government to be formed this week.

"What I want people to understand ... is that over the course of months, we are going to be able to not just blunt the momentum of ISIL," he said, using an alternate name for the group. "We are going to systematically degrade their capabilities. We're going to shrink the territory that they control. And ultimately we're going to defeat them."

'Critically important' 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.

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, adding that the U.S. is continuing to explore all options for expanding the battle against the Islamic State into Syria.

Hagel spoke after a meeting with Alasania, the first of several sessions with 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.

133 airstrikes since August

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 armoured 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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