The U.S. military is coordinating some airstrikes with Sunni tribal militias on the ground in Iraq’s Anbar Province after Islamic State militants began to build up forces near the Haditha Dam, a Pentagon official said Monday.
The strikes that began Saturday marked an expansion of the four-week-old U.S. bombing campaign in Iraq by targeting IS forces for the first time in the western part of the country, where the militants have held territory for months. Until now, U.S. airstrikes were limited to Iraq’s northern provinces and the Kurdish border region.
The timing of the strikes was driven in part by intelligence showing the miliants amassing forces in the area around the Haditha dam, a large facility that provides electricity and water to millions of Iraqis in the Euphrates River Valley.
“We had seen the enemy moving heavier weapons into that area, so it became clear to us that they were potentially planning to increase pressure on the Haditha dam area,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman.
The Islamic State was “moving artillery pieces into positions closer around the dam specifically as well as … ‘technical’ vehicles, or these armed trucks that they like to use,” Warren said Monday.
The timing of the expanded bombing mission into western Iraq also is being driven by the growing reliability of U.S. allies on the ground. In recent weeks, both official Iraqi security forces and irregular Sunni tribal forces in the area have gained strength, Warren said.
“Friendly forces, Iraqi and Kurdish forces, had been continuing to build up their combat power around the Haditha dam area and the time was right for a counterattack,” Warren said.