FALLUJAH, Iraq: Insurgents in Iraq have added water to their arsenal of weapons after seizing control of a dam in the west of the country that enables them to flood selected areas and prevent security forces from advancing against them.
The dam is located some 5 km south of the city of Fallujah, which was overrun by militants early this year, and distributes water from the Euphrates River through the western province of Anbar.
Iraqi troops have been surrounding Fallujah and shelling the city in an effort to dislodge anti-government militias including the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
In February, ISIS took control of the Nuaimiya area where the dam is located, and began fortifying their positions with concrete blast walls and sand bags, according to anti-government leaders who said no other groups were involved in the takeover.
The militants closed all eight of the dam’s 10 gates one week ago, flooding land upstream and reducing water levels in Iraq’s southern provinces, through which the Euphrates flows before emptying into the Gulf.
Anti-government fighters said ISIS’ strategy was to flood the area around the city to force troops to retreat and lift the siege on Fallujah.
“Using water as a weapon in a fight to make people thirsty is a heinous crime,” said Oun Dhiyab, an adviser to the Water Ministry.
“Closing the dam and messing with Euphrates water will have dire consequences,” he said.
By Thursday, militants had re-opened five of the dam’s gates to relieve some pressure, fearing their strategy would backfire by flooding their own stronghold of Fallujah, some 70 km west of Baghdad.
Iraqi security officials said flooding around the city had already forced many families to leave their homes and prevented troops from deploying or operating properly in order to prevent militants from encroaching on the capital.
“They [ISIS] want to use the flood waters to make it difficult for the security forces to deploy in those areas and this is their chance to move the battle outside Fallujah,” said an anti-government leader inside the city.
The Fallujah dam is also key to a number of irrigation projects in the desert province of Anbar, which shares a border with Syria.
In his weekly televised address, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who held off a full-on ground assault on Fallujah, vowed to exact revenge from the militants for interfering with the water supply.
“The murderers took advantage of the government policy of utmost restraint in Fallujah. ... But it seems the situation has become more complicated and necessitates confrontation,” Maliki said.
Two army officers in Ramadi and Fallujah said preparations were underway to launch a quick attack to regain control of the Fallujah dam.
“We are carrying out aerial surveillance to spot militant positions near the dam,” said one army officer whose regiment received orders to prepare to mobilize from Taji, north of Baghdad, to Fallujah.
“A military operation could start very soon,” he said.
Iraq is a patchwork of desert and arable land. Its inhabitable areas are fed by the Tigris from Turkey, the Euphrates from Turkey and Syria, and a network of smaller rivers flowing from Iran.
The decline of water levels in the Euphrates has also led to electricity shortages in towns south of Baghdad, which rely on steam-powered generators that in turn depend entirely on adequate water levels.
A spokesman for the Electricity Ministry said the power supply from Mussayab power station had decreased from 170 megawatts to 90 megawatts.
Government officials and advisers warned that ongoing closure of the dam could affect the effective irrigation of farms in many southern provinces that depend on the Euphrates, including Hilla, Kerbala, Najaf and Diwaniya.
“Iraq is close to national elections and it seems they want to force the government into a corner,” said one senior security official, speaking on condition of anonymity.