By Sara Elizabeth Williams and Jerome Starkey
British aircraft flying over northern Iraq fed intelligence to the Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi special forces as they fought to retake the Mosul dam, soldiers involved in the operation said.
A Kurdish colonel, who spoke anonymously, said that the information was relayed to a command post in Arbil, the largest city in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, and then on to the soldiers around Mosul.
The revelations came after Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, said that the RAF deployed Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft alongside Tornado bombers to monitor Islamic militants, who have captured huge areas of Iraq since their advance in June.
Soldiers from The 2nd Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment were also sent to Arbil, Mr Fallon said, on a short reconnaissance mission last week.
Iraqi officials claimed to have captured the Mosul dam by nightfall on Sunday, hours after they launched a bloody ground offensive against Islamic State (Isis) militants. However, witnesses said that militants were still holed up inside the compound on Monday afternoon.
“Isis are still there inside the dam, and around it,” Sheikh Abu Thair said. “Perhaps they raised the Iraqi flag somewhere, but the dam is 20sq km. It is under the control of Isis.”
Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government, said that Islamic State fighters, who seized the dam on August 7, were a “resourceful, determined enemy, that is truly unconventional”. He added: “There have been a lot of casualties . . . It has not been an easy fight.”
The Kurdish colonel, based in Zammar, on the lake that feeds into the dam, said that Islamic State fighters were better equipped than the peshmerga, who lacked body armour and helmets and had few armoured vehicles. He said many soldiers had been killed and many more wounded, but refused to give specific figures.
The militants, who captured dozens of armoured cars from the Iraqi army during their advance, fought from inside fortified bunkers and used homemade mines to defend their lines, the colonel said.
“Coalition airstrikes helped win this game,” he told The Times.
President Obama said last night that he authorised the airstrikes to protect civilians and the US embassy, which is more than 400km downstream and at risk if the dam were breached. He hailed the claimed recapture of the dam as a “major step forward” in the battle against Isis.
General Helgurd Hikmet Mela Ali, a spokesman for the peshmerga, refused to confirm Britain’s aerial intelligence role, citing “operational security”. However, he said there was no doubt that the surveillance had helped: “We don’t have the capacity or assets to do this.”
Asked about the SAS, who are still based in Iraq, General Ali said plans to transform the peshmerga into a professional army relied on “Britain’s military strength and skill”.
He insisted that his soldiers controlled the dam, but claimed there was a defensive line of roadside bombs, which had hindered their advance.
“A 2km line of improvised explosive devices placed very professionally, only army engineers place them that way. [It] is a real problem for us,” he said.