BAGHDAD — The militants who have overrun large parts of Iraq are now battling ferociously to capture one of the country’s vital resources — water.
Fighters with the Islamic State group launched a three-pronged attack over the weekend in a drive to capture Haditha Dam, in western Iraq, a complex with six power generators located alongside Iraq’s second-largest reservoir. At the same time, they are fighting to capture Iraq’s largest dam, Mosul Dam, in the north of the country.
Seizing the dams and the large reservoirs they hold would give the militants control over water and electricity they could use to help build support in the territory they now rule by providing the scarce resources to residents. Or they could sell the resources as a lucrative source of revenue.
They also could use the dams as a weapon of war by flooding terrain downstream to slow Iraq’s military or disrupt life. They have done that with a smaller dam they hold closer to Baghdad. But with the larger dams, there are limits on this tactic since it also would flood areas the insurgents hold.
On Friday, the fighters unleashed a powerful attack from three sides on the town of Haditha in western Anbar province. Suicide attackers tried but failed to detonate an oil tanker and several trucks packed with explosives. The aim was to obliterate the final line of defense between the militants and Haditha Dam on the Euphrates River, Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, the commander of Anbar Operations Command, told The Associated Press.
All seemed lost
For a brief moment, it seemed all was lost. The Sunni militants seized the army command headquarters in town, with very little stopping them from reaching the dam. But some local Sunni tribes who oppose the militants and feared for their livelihoods if the dam were captured sent fighters to reinforce the 2,000 soldiers guarding the town, allowing for a narrow victory. At least 35 militants and 10 soldiers were killed in clashes Friday, Fleih said.
But the militants have been fighting every day since trying to take the town, according to four senior military sources in Anbar province. They spoke to the Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak with the media.
Only 6 miles remain between the militants and the dam.
The jihadis also are closing in on the Mosul Dam — or Saddam Dam as it was once known — located north of Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul, which fell to the militants June 10. Fighting intensified in the region Sunday after the nearby towns of Zumar and Sinjar fell to the militants.
Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, managed to hold the fighters off for now, but the growing strength and savvy of these Islamic militants is raising grave concerns.
Captured smaller dam
Earlier this year, the group’s fighters captured the smaller Fallujah Dam on the Euphrates when they seized the nearby city of Fallujah. Repeatedly, the militants used it as a weapon, opening it to flood downriver when government forces move in on the city.
Worst hit has been the area of Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of Baghdad. In May, some 12,000 families lost crops and many fled their homes, worsening Iraq’s growing crisis of internal displacement. The Special Representative for the U.N. Secretary General in Iraq called the incident a “water war,” and called on Iraqi forces and local tribes to team up and take back Iraqi waterways.
Doing that with Hadith and Mosul Dams is more problematic, since militant-controlled lie downstream. But damage to either could be disastrous, particularly in the case of the Mosul Dam. It has millions of cubic meters of water pent up behind it on the Tigris River, which — some 220 miles downstream — runs through the heart of Baghdad.
“Everything under it will be under five to 10 (yards) of water ... including Baghdad itself,” said Ali Khedery, head of the Dubai-based consultancy Dragoman Partners and a longtime adviser to the U.S. military, government and companies in Iraq. “It would be catastrophic.”
Dams are critical in Iraq for generating electricity, regulating river flow and providing irrigation. Water is a precious commodity in this largely desert country of 32.5 million people. The decline of water levels in the Euphrates over recent years has led to electricity shortages in towns south of Baghdad, where steam-powered generators depend entirely on water levels.
Water is not the first resource the Islamic State group has narrowed in on as it swept over much of northern and western Iraq and parts of neighboring Syria the past months. The group captured oilfields and pipelines in Syria and sold off crude oil, helping fund its drive across both countries.
Any disruption to the Mosul Dam “would destabilize the electricity system of northern Iraq,” added Paul Sullivan, an economist and Middle East expert at National Defense University in Washington. “This station is an integral part of the entire electricity grid of Iraq.”