(Reuters) – Islamic State fighters seized control of Iraq’s biggest dam, an oilfield and three more towns on Sunday after inflicting their first major defeat on Kurdish forces since sweeping through the region in June.
Capture of the Mosul Dam after an offensive of barely 24 hours could give the Sunni militants the ability to flood major Iraqi cities, sharply raising the stakes in their bid to topple Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shi’ite-led government.
Islamic State, which sees Iraq’s majority Shi’ites as apostates who deserve to be killed, also seized the Ain Zalah oil field, adding to four others already under their control, and three towns.
They faced strong Kurdish resistance only at the start of their latest offensive when taking the town of Zumar. The Islamists then hoisted their black flags there, a ritual that usually precedes mass executions of their captured opponents and the imposition of an ideology even al-Qaeda finds excessive.
Since thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled the Islamic State offensive, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish fighters have been seen as a critical line of defense against the militants, who have threatened to march on Baghdad.
But Sunday’s battles have called into question the effectiveness of the Kurdish fighters and have increased pressure on Iraqi leaders to form a power-sharing government capable of countering the Islamic State.