Khalid Mohammed / AP

Iraqi and Kurdish forces recapture Mosul Dam

President Obama says military win is 'major step forward' in battle to repel Islamic State fighters

Kurdish and Iraqi government troops regained control of the Mosul Dam from Islamic State fighters on Monday after days of fierce fighting around the complex aided by U.S. air strikes.

Rebels had seized the strategically important facility last week, the latest in a string of victories for the armed group.

But its recapture was hailed as a "major step forward" by President Barack Obama. At a press conference at the White House on Monday, Obama said the operation – in which the Iraqi government worked together with Kurdish peshmerga – served as an example of how to combat the threat of Islamic State (IS).

His comments confirmed earlier reports that control of the country's largest dam had been wrested from IS fighters.

Qasim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman, told Iraqi state television the attack had been planned days in advance and involved Iraqi anti-terrorism forces, SWAT teams and the peshmerga. U.S. Central Command would not immediately confirm any involvement.

On Sunday the peshmerga recaptured the town of Tel Skuf, about 9 miles east of the dam, as well as the towns of Sharafiya and Batnaya.

The retaking of the dam marks the first major victory for the Iraqi and Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State since U.S. air strikes began earlier this month. Local residents and others in the area could not immediately be contacted to confirm the security forces' recapture of the dam.

In an Internet statement, the Islamic State denied losing control of the dam, dismissing the government claim as "mere propaganda war." The statement, which could not be independently verified, was posted on a website frequently used by the fighters.

The U.S. launched air strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq more than a week ago in a bid to halt its advance across the north. The U.S. military said its forces conducted nine strikes on Saturday and another 16 on Sunday.

The dam's seizure by Islamic State fighters on Aug. 7 was part of a string of victories by the group as it looks to expand its hold in northern Iraq, driving back Kurdish forces, sending minority communities fleeing and unleashing a wave of violence over a territory straddling the Syria-Iraq border.

The decision to launch air strikes marked the first direct U.S. military intervention in Iraq since the last American troops withdrew in 2011 and reflected growing international concern about the extremist group.

The White House sent a letter to Congress on Sunday saying that its air campaign in Iraq "is consistent with the president's directive that the U.S. military protect U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, since the failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians and threaten U.S. personnel and facilities – including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad."

It also noted that the failure of the dam could "prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services" to the Iraqi people.

Some 1.5 million people have been displaced by fighting in Iraq since the Islamic State's rapid advance began in June.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Zeina Khodr contributed reporting.

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