A Kurdish peshmerga fighter prepares his weapon at his combat position near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq, Aug 17, 2014.

A Kurdish peshmerga fighter prepares his weapon at his combat position near the Mosul Dam at the town of Chamibarakat outside Mosul, Iraq, Aug 17, 2014. Khalid Mohammed/AP

U.S. Escalates Iraq Campaign With Barrage of Weekend Strikes for Mosul Dam

American jets, bombers and drones helped the Peshmerga wrestle back control of Iraq's largest dam from Islamic militants. Kurds say the Ninevah plains are next. By Ben Watson

In an escalation of fighting seemingly beyond President Barack Obama’s original military objectives in Iraq, United States aircraft targeted Islamic State fighters gathered near Iraq’s Mosul Dam as Kurdish soldiers began their offensive to regain control of the key facility on Saturday and Sunday. The airstrikes, in a campaign spanning at least two dozen separate attacks, take the U.S. military into actions beyond mere humanitarian assistance and the direct protection of American personnel and equipment. But the White House said Sunday that the president notified Congress on August 14 the Mosul campaign—and the dam—fell squarely under his limited definition for the U.S. military’s intervention.

“The failure of the Mosul Dam could threaten the lives of large numbers of civilians, endanger U.S. personnel and facilities, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, and prevent the Iraqi government from providing critical services to the Iraqi populace,” the resolution read.

“These operations are limited in their nature, duration, and scope and are being undertaken in coordination with and at the request of the Government of Iraq,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said in statement.

Islamic fighters had occupied the dam for less than two weeks when the U.S.-Kurdish counteroffensive kicked off this weekend. The 16 airstrikes on Sunday—in addition to nine near Mosul Dam on Saturday—included a combination of fighter and attack jets, drones, and B-1 bomber aircraft, according to U.S. Central Command officials, who said in a statement that the military attacks came “under authority to support humanitarian efforts in Iraq” and protect U.S. forces. But CENTCOM’s statement also said the attacks were to “protect critical infrastructure” and support Iraqi and Kurdish forces.

The weekend strikes near the dam collectively destroyed 20 ISIL armed vehicles, nine Humvees, six armored personnel carriers, an unspecified “armed vehicle,” two ISIL checkpoints and a roadside bomb emplacement. For the first time on Sunday, CENTCOM officials said the U.S. had destroyed an ISIL vehicle-mounted anti-aircraft artillery gun. And in further confirmation ISIL fighters are operating with confiscated Iraqi equipment, U.S. aircraft took two passes on Thursday to destroy an ISIL Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or MRAP, lifted from the Iraqi security forces. CENTCOM posted two videos from Saturday’s air operation on YouTube.

(Read more: This Is Why Many of Iraq’s Forces Dropped Their Weapons )

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish official who was Iraq’s foreign minister until last month’s government reshuffling that led to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s departure , told the BBC that Peshmerga fighters faced fierce resistance during the Mosul Dam assault—including roadside bombs and ISIL suicide bombers. The next objective, Zebari said, involved protection of the Ninevah plain “to ensure the return of minorities” like the Yazidi crisis that drew the Obama administration’s hand nine days ago.

On Friday, the administration’s air campaign moved beyond Mount Sinjar and the Kurdish capital of Irbil. In the afternoon reports that ISIL militants executed another 80 Yazidi men and took nearly 100 women captive emerged from Kurdish Rudaw news agency.

“Last week I authorized two limited missions: protecting our people and facilities inside of Iraq, and a humanitarian operation to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians stranded on a mountain,” Obama said Thursday in a short statement during his vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. “We broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives. Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain and it’s unlikely that we’re going to need to continue humanitarian airdrops on the mountain.”

But Obama stopped short of ruling out any quick end to America’s newly escalated role as an offensive force with Iraqi security forces.

“Wherever we have capabilities and we can carry out effective missions like the one we carried out on Mount Sinjar without committing combat troops on the ground, we obviously feel a great urge to provide some humanitarian relief to the situation,” he said. “We will continue airstrikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq. We have increased the delivery of military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL on the front lines. And perhaps most importantly, we are urging Iraqis to come together to turn the tide against ISIL, above all by seizing the enormous opportunity of forming a new inclusive government under the leadership of Prime Minister-designate Abadi.”

Obama faced criticism last week for his insistence on not establishing a Congressionally-authorized, combat boots-on-the-ground U.S. troop presence in Iraq so far, preferring instead to cast the work of some 1,000 U.S. personnel as advisory and humanitarian.

Many thousands of Iraqi civilians were forced to take refuge atop a mountain in northern Iraq until only late last week, isolated from food and water. The crisis, said Secretary of State John Kerry, bore “all the warning signs and hallmarks of genocide.” And at the United Nations, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power highlighted ISIL’s control over Iraq’s natural resources and infrastructure.

(Read more: A Short History of the Barbaric Terrorists of the Islamic State )

“[ISIL] has seized some of the country’s precious natural resources and taken control of critical infrastructure,” Power said Friday before the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to cut vital financial and arms flows to fighters from the Islamic State. “Now ISIL has the ability to block the flow of electricity and control access to the water supplies on which people depend.”

Watch video below from two of Central Command’s strikes on ISIL elements Saturday near the Mosul Dam.