Wednesday 22 January 2020

ISIS booby traps huge dam as Pope backs US strikes

Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard near the town of Makhmur, south of Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan after Islamic State (IS) insurgents withdrew. Reuters
Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard near the town of Makhmur, south of Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan after Islamic State (IS) insurgents withdrew. Reuters
Kurdish Peshmerga forces drive cars near the town of Makhmur, south of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan after Islamic State (IS) insurgents withdrew. Reuters
Iraq Shiite fighters make their way to the front line to fight militants from the extremist Islamic State group in Jurf al-Sakhar, 43 miles (70 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Fighters of the voluntary armed group formed after the radical Shiite cleric Muqtatda al-Sadr called to protect holy shrines against possible attacks by Sunni militants. AP
Kurdish men display weapons for sale at an arms market in Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Reuters
A refugee woman from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, sits with a child inside a tent at Nowruz refugee camp in Qamishli, northeastern Syria. Reuters
The banks of the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River in Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Reuters

Ruth Sherlock

THE American-backed offensive to recapture Iraq's biggest dam stalled yesterday as fighters from the Islamic State rigged part of the area with booby traps and remotely triggered bombs.

Separately yesterday Pope Francis said that the United States and its allies are justified in trying to stop the Islamic State extremists, formerly known as Isis, and even suggested he could visit the country himself .

Whilst a series of air strikes by American F-18 fighter jets reportedly sent most of the jihadists fleeing from the central parts of Mosul dam, a network of landmines and planted explosives they left behind impeded Kurdish ground forces from recapturing the strategically vital terrain.

"The jihadists have escaped from their positions beside the water pumps - the most important levers for the dam," said Gen Kawa Kawani, the spokesman for the Kurdish special forces. "But we cannot enter the area because of the explosives."

Kurdish peshmerga, Iraqi government troops and America joined forces over the weekend in an offensive to regain control of Mosul hydroelectric dam on the Tigris, a structure that provides water and electricity to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the region.

The dam, which holds back 11 billion cubic meters of water and produces more than 1,000 megawatts of electricity, has the potential to be used as a "weapon of mass destruction", experts have warned.

If the dam is intentionally damaged - or even just not properly maintained, it could unleash a 60ft-high wall of water that would submerge Mosul, Iraq's second city, drowning hundreds of thousands of people, and even potentially flooding parts of Baghdad.

US fighter jets yesterday launched 15 air strikes in areas around the dam, continuing the biggest US offensive in Iraq since it pulled its troops from the country in 2011.

US President Barack Obama told Congress that the air strikes were part of "protecting US interests in Iraq".

"The failure of the Mosul dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger US personnel and facilities, including the US Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace," Mr Obama said.

Peshmerga forces and some Iraqi government troops had made quick progress towards the damn over the weekend, seizing control of three villages nearby, and coming within a few miles of the main dam.

However, that advance was stalled by an elaborate network of landmines and remotely detonated explosives, which killed two peshmerga fighters and wounded several more.

"The Islamic State clearly have highly sophisticated bomb experts in their ranks," said Gen Kawani. "Two of their car bombs were detonated by mobile phones."

Fighting also continued elsewhere in the wide area around the reservoir.

Pope Francis said that it was "legitimate" for the West to tackle "unjust aggression" after thousands of Christians and other religious minorities have been forced to flee for their lives. He made the comments after British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain needs to combat "monstrous" Islamic State fundamentalists before they bring "mayhem to our own streets".

Britain has stepped up its engagement in Iraq over the past week, moving from responding to the humanitarian crisis to helping the US and Kurdish forces take on Islamic State extremists. Michael Fallon, the British Defence Secretary, has said that British warplanes and surveillance aircraft are now flying deep into Iraq, monitoring the movements of Islamic State forces.

But Mr Cameron insisted that Britain will not be drawn into "another war in Iraq" and insisted that Britain will not be putting "boots on the ground".

He will today begin his second holiday of the summer, in Cornwall, but said he is prepared to return "instantly if necessary".

Pope Francis made his comments to journalists as he returned from a trip to South Korea. Asked if he approved of US air strikes, he said: "In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression I can only say that it is legitimate to stop the unjust aggressor. I underscore the verb 'to stop'. I am not saying 'bomb' or 'make war', but stop him. The means by which he can be stopped must be evaluated. Stopping the unjust aggressor is legitimate."

He added that he believes the United Nations is best placed to decide the response to the Islamic State extremists.

He said: "One single nation cannot judge how he is to be stopped, how an unjust aggressor is to be stopped."

He added that he was "willing" to go to Iraq, but said it "would not be the best thing to do" at present.

Mr Cameron said: "I want to be absolutely clear to you and to families watching at home, Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq. We are not going to be putting boots on the ground." (©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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