Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) — The U.S. military launched airstrikes targeting ISIS fighters around a key dam in western Iraq on Sunday, the Pentagon said.
It carried out the airstrikes near Haditha Dam at the request of Iraq, according to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
If the terror group seized the dam — the second-largest in the country — it would prove catastrophic. It provides water to millions of people in western and southern Iraq.
The U.S. also fears the militants could use the water to flood villages and seize control of the nation’s lucrative electricity industry.
“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,” Kirby said.
Fighter and bomber aircraft carried out four airstrikes that destroyed ISIS positions and equipment, including Humvees, a checkpoint and a bunker, U.S. officials said.
Numerous attempts to seize Haditha
Much of the western province of Anbar is under the control of ISIS, but the city of Haditha and its dam have remained in Iraqi forces’ hands despite numerous attempts by the militants to seize them, said Faleh al-Issawi, a top provincial official.
Militants are using parts of the province to launch mortar and other attacks on Haditha, and local officials are concerned they will hit the dam and cause massive flooding.
Al-Issawi said the U.S. military’s assistance provided much-needed air cover to facilitate the ground movement of Iraqi troops.
Dams as war weapons
ISIS fighters have sought to turn Iraq’s dams into weapons.
The group, whose acronym stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, now refers to itself as the Islamic State.
Earlier this year, ISIS fighters opened the gates of Falluja Dam in an effort to stop an Iraqi military advance. Water from the dam flooded various villages.
U.S. forces have kept an eye on Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, where Iraqi troops held off an ISIS assault last month. The Pentagon said operations will continue to ensure Iraqi forces maintain control of the dam.
“Potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam — and the flooding that might result — would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad,” Kirby said in a statement.
Recapture of largest dam
Last month, U.S. airstrikes helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces recapture Mosul Dam from ISIS.
A breach of that dam, the largest in Iraq, would have endangered Iraqis who live downstream and the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad, U.S. President Barack Obama said at the time.
If it gave way, it would send walls of water racing down the Tigris River toward Mosul and its 1.7 million inhabitants. Massive flooding would affect major cities farther downstream, including Baghdad.
Mosul Dam had been the center of an intense battle between the ISIS extremists and Kurdish forces. The U.S. military used air support to help Kurdish forces, including fighters, bombers and unmanned aircraft.
ISIS militants have killed thousands of Syrians and Iraqis as the Sunni extremist group seeks to build an Islamic caliphate stretching across a swath of territory.
The militants have executed two American journalists in recent weeks, slayings analysts describe as a propaganda tool.