U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the United States has begun carrying out air strikes near Iraq's strategic Haditha Dam, which has been besieged and under threat from Islamic State militants since June.
Speaking in Tbilisi on September 7 after talks with Georgia’s defense minister, Hagel said the strikes were launched at the request of the Iraqi government.
Hagel said the dam is "a critically important facility for Iraq."
He said: "If the dam should fall into the hands of the Islamic State or if that dam would be destroyed, the damage that that would cause would be very significant.”
He said the capture of the dam by the militants would have created "a big risk, including against U.S. interests in Iraq."
Hagel also said that the air campaign "complies with, and corresponds to, and follows" U.S. President Barack Obama’s "guidance on how, where, and when" the United States will assist the Iraqi security forces.
In fact, the air strikes represent a broadening of the U.S. campaign against Islamic State fighters in Iraq and the opening of a new front in the Iraqi government’s counteroffensive against the militants.
Previous U.S. air strikes against the militants focused on targets in northern Iraq, where the Sunni-led fighters also seized large swaths of territory in recent months -- executing hundreds from non-Sunni religious minorities and threatening areas controlled by Iraq’s Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
The Iraqi security chief at the town of Haditha, Abdel-Hakim al-Jegheifi, said the air strikes killed "dozens" of militants and left many wounded.
He also said that a "major military operation, backed by local tribesmen, has begun" in the area.
The Haditha Dam is on the Euphrates River in Iraq's western Anbar Province.
The 9-kilometer-long earth structure includes one of Iraq's largest hydroelectric power plants.
It also forms a large artificial lake -- Lake Qadisiya -- that is used to irrigate farm plots that produce a substantial amount of food.