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 ISIS 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.
Seizing the dams and the large reservoirs they hold would give the militants control over water and electricity that 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 could also 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 would also flood areas that the insurgents hold.
The fighters Friday unleashed a powerful attack from three sides on the town of Haditha in 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, according to Lt. Gen. Rashid Fleih, the commander of Anbar Operations Command.
For a brief moment, it seemed all was lost. ISIS 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 condition of anonymity.
Only 10 kms remain between the militants and the dam.
The jihadists are also closing in on the Mosul Dam – or Saddam Dam as it was once known – located north of Mosul, which fell to the militants on June 10. Fighting intensified in the region Sunday after the nearby towns of Zumar and Sinjar fell to the militants.
Kurdish peshmerga forces have held the fighters off for now, but the growing strength and savvy of ISIS militants is raising grave concerns.
The peshmerga are “under a great deal of pressure now” as they defend a 150-km frontline against ISIS along the edges of the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north,” Maj. Gen. Jabar Yawer, the official spokesman of the Kurdistan Region Guard Forces, told The Associated Press.
“God forbid, if something happens that results in the destruction of the dam, it will be very, very dangerous,” Yawer said.
Earlier this year, the group’s fighters captured the smaller Fallujah Dam when they seized the nearby city of that name. Repeatedly, the militants have 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.
Doing that with Haditha and Mosul Dams is more problematic, since militant-controlled areas 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 370 kms downstream – runs through the heart of Baghdad.
“Everything under it will be under five to 10 meters 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. 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.
If ISIS captures the dams, the militants are likely to try to use their electricity and water resources to build up support in nearby areas it controls, where residents often complain of shortages. Or it could try to snarl electricity service elsewhere.
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.”