U.S. warplanes launched airstrikes near Mosul Dam in northern Iraq on Saturday in a joint operation with Iraqi and Kurdish troops to retake the strategically important facility from militants, a senior U.S. official said.
U.S. fighter jets and armed drones were launching airstrikes and providing air cover for Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting to regain control of the dam, Iraq's largest hydroelectric facility, the official said.
"The nine air strikes conducted thus far destroyed or damaged four armored personnel carriers, seven armed vehicles, two Humvees and an armored vehicle," it said in a statement, adding: "All aircraft exited the strike areas safely."
It said the strikes were conducted with a mix of fighters and drones, adding: "All aircraft exited the strike areas safely."
The Central Command said the strikes were aimed at supporting humanitarian efforts in Iraq and protecting U.S. personnel and facilities there.
The joint operation is the first since airstrikes began last week that involves U.S. fighters and armed drones coordinating with Iraqi and Kurdish troops on the ground in an offensive operation against militants, including members of the Islamic State.
By attacking near Mosul Dam the U.S. extended by hundreds of miles the geographic area where it has conducted airstrikes, which had been around the city of Irbil and Mt. Sinjar in the north.
The attacks came two days after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said he would step down, which U.S. officials said cleared the way for stepped-up military assistance to beleaguered Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The official said the operation did not stray beyond the limits on the military set by President Obama, who has said repeatedly that such action would be limited to protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq and to give humanitarian aid.
It is "supportive of both the humanitarian mission and of the need to protect U.S. personnel due to the damage that could be wrought from their control of the dam," said the official. "We've talked about protecting critical infrastructure before."
A second U.S. official confirmed the airstrikes, saying there had been "several" attacks on militants Saturday. No American personnel are on the ground near Mosul, he said.
The officials asked not to be identified while discussing ongoing military operations.
The dam across the Tigris River was taken over by Islamic State militants this month, giving them control over water and electricity in a vast area of northern Iraq. In the worst-case scenario, U.S. officials fear the dam could be destroyed, flooding towns and cities downstream.
The city of Mosul, which is 30 miles downstream, is under the militants' control. U.S. officials have not ruled out airstrikes against militants closer to Baghdad.
LA Times and Reuters contributed to this reportCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun