It may be a coincidence that apocalyptic American warnings that Mosul’s giant dam could imminently collapse, potentially killing 1 million Iraqis, come at the very moment when US and Iraqi forces are preparing an all-out assault on the city, the main stronghold of Islamic State (Isis) terrorists in the country.
But the alarmist language employed by the US embassy in Baghdad to describe a long-standing, well-documented problem – the dam has had serious issues since it was built in 1984 – suggests concerns over the safety of Mosul’s residents are not the only calculation at work.
In their dreams, US commanders tasked with vanquishing Isis might privately relish the thought of a flood of biblical proportions sweeping away the black-hearted evildoers. In a flash, the ancient lands of Mesopotamia, from contested areas north of Mosul all the way down the Tigris river valley to Baghdad, would be cleansed of the jihadist abomination.
The statement conjured up images of a giant tsunami-like disaster that could kill 1 million people, ruin two-thirds of Iraq’s prime agricultural croplands, destroy electricity and clean water supplies, leave cities uninhabitable for months, and turn much of the country’s population into refugees.
It said Mosul could be inundated by 21 metres of water within hours and that down-river cities including Tikrit, Samarra and Baghdad would flood, too. “The flood wave … would sweep downstream anything in its path, including bodies, buildings, cars, unexploded ordinances, hazardous chemicals and waste.”
This is the stuff Hollywood movies are made of. But what is really going on? The US admits it has no specific information indicating if or when a breach might occur. It implies that, given lack of effective, ongoing maintenance, the risk of collapse is higher than previously. But it provides no new evidence. In 2006, the US army corps of engineers called Mosul “the most dangerous dam in the world” – but that did not trigger wild talk of imminent calamity.
Forced to respond, the Iraqi government this week fast-forwarded the signing of a $300m contract with an Italian company to repair the dam. But Iraqi officials, spooked by the US, reiterated that in their view the risk was small. Even though the spring thaw in Turkey’s mountains would raise water levels, the dam’s reservoir was currently only about one-third full, they said.
Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, said: “The collapse of the dam is very unlikely, especially with the technical and administrative precautions taken by the authorities … We have developed a package of precautionary recommendations in order to avoid any potential risk, God forbid.”
If the worst happens, officials say, people in Mosul and elsewhere should head for higher ground. That is not very helpful advice. On the other hand, scaremongering US statements lacking new solutions or ideas are even less useful.
A possible clue to American thinking was contained in the embassy’s statement. “Much of the territory projected to be damaged by a dam breach is contested or Isis-controlled, suggesting an authority-directed evacuation is unlikely, and that some evacuees may not have freedom of movement sufficient to escape,” it said.
In other words, the not-so-subtle American panic-stations message to Mosul’s Sunni Muslim majority is: here’s another reason not to put your faith in Isis, to reject the caliphate and all its works, and to support the Iraqi government’s efforts to reintegrate your city. If the dam blows, for whatever reason, Isis will abandon you. They will leave you and your children to drown.
It would be foolish to underestimate the technical problems with Mosul’s dam – or the possibility it could be damaged by renewed fighting, which was the fear when Isis briefly seized it in 2014.
But the biggest, most immediate and most likely catastrophe facing Mosul is the looming Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga military offensive to re-take it, backed by US airstrikes, weaponry, logistics and frontline combat “advisers”. Many months of fierce, highly destructive house-to-house fighting are anticipated, as in Ramadi last year.
Iraqi leaders have submitted their plans for the reconquest of Mosul to lieutenant-general Sean MacFarland, the senior US commander in Iraq and Syria. He awaits the Pentagon’s green light. Meanwhile, targeted ground, cyber, special forces, and propaganda operations to isolate the city and cut off its supply routes – and to rattle and divide Isis jihadists and Mosul residents – are in full swing.
Humiliated in Syria by the Russians, and affronted by Isis’s stubborn refusal to roll over and die, the US is looking for a big victory in Iraq. A storm is gathering over Mosul. And damn the consequences.