- - Wednesday, August 3, 2016

NEAR MOSUL, Iraq — The driver speeds along the narrow strip of pavement toward Mosul Dam. Square plots marked by piles of rubble serve as the only testaments to whatever villages or homes once stood here. To the south, Islamic State fighters are only a few miles away, barely 500 yards at some points, where sporadic mortar fire has been aimed at the Kurdish peshmerga.

In August 2014, the Islamic State terrorist group seized the dam in its blitz for territory in Iraq, which extended deep into the Kurdish region in the north and southern Sunni-dominated cities such as Mosul, Tikrit, Ramadi and Fallujah.

The terrorist group held the strategic Mosul Dam for less than two weeks, but the aftershocks and fears are still palpable and have become sources of tension between U.S. authorities and Iraqi overseers of the 32-year-old structure.

Mosul Dam was built under Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. The prestige project was intended to harness the power of the mighty Tigris River and convert it to hydroelectric energy and use the water to irrigate farm fields. Fears that Turkey could cut off critical water supplies was another factor.

A 2007 U.S. government report on relief and reconstruction in Iraq says the dam provides “hydroelectric power for the 1.7 million residents of Mosul.”

Yet since its inception, engineers have said the dam has been plagued by structural problems and requires constant maintenance and monitoring. Surveys have concluded that the dam requires a routine infusion of cement to secure its base in the spongy, gypsum-rich soil.

When the dam fell under control of the Islamic State, the world feared that a humanitarian disaster was imminent. In the summer of 2014, news reports said that without the proper upkeep and in the hands of unpredictable extremists, the dam could be destroyed, unleashing a tidal wave that would engulf Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Analysts said the floodwater would travel all the way to Baghdad, over 240 miles away.

Yet within a week, the peshmerga — the Kurdistan Regional Government’s fighting force — launched a counteroffensive backed by targeted U.S. airstrikes. They managed to retake the dam in 24 hours, but press reports and U.S. military officials warned that the cement factory used to reinforce the dam was still under Islamic State control and the schedule for badly needed maintenance was pushed back for months.

The Trevi Group, an Italian firm, won a $300 million contract from Kurdish authorities to repair and maintain the site, but U.S. officials said they were keeping contingency plans close at hand in case the dam started to give way.

“The likelihood of the dam collapsing is something we are trying to determine right now,” Army Gen. Sean MacFarland, commander of the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, told the Reuters news agency in January.

“All we know is when it goes, it’s going to go fast and that’s bad,” he said.

Peshmerga Col. Delshad Mawlod doesn’t regularly shepherd journalists to the dam, but he made an exception for this writer last month — perhaps because of the public holiday marking 58 years since Iraq abolished its monarchy. The colonel is in charge of permission for media visits to nearly the whole of the Kurdish militia’s front line against the Islamic State — from Mosul Dam to the recently liberated Khazir village in the southeast.

Mosul mission

The Kurdish peshmerga, in conjunction with the Iraqi army and international coalition forces, are preparing for an offensive against Mosul. They are slowly retaking and securing villages surrounding Mosul to prepare for the battle, yet the colonel says the offensive should not be the biggest concern. “Mosul liberation is easy,” he said through a translator, citing the peshmerga’s battlefield successes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the past two years.

It’s political concerns, he said, that have held up the operation to recapture Mosul. Many in the majority-Sunni city welcomed the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, when it first arrived, and the Kurds don’t want to administer a majority Arab city. They look down at the Iraqi army and have little faith that it can keep order in the city.

A third option, the Hashd al-Watani Sunni militia — founded and financed by Atheel al-Nijaifi, former governor of Nineveh province and the brother of Mosul’s mayor at the time of the Islamic State takeover — is preparing to help with the offensive. Still, Kurds express doubt about the efficacy of the militia.

“After ISIS is the problem, you don’t know who will take Mosul. It will be prime for ethnic fights, terrorists will run the city, the Iranians will run the city,” said Col. Mawlod, referring to Tehran’s growing influence in Iraq’s south.

Despite the strategic value and structural concerns, not a single employee was seen at the dam during our visit. The dam is quiet, the water still, with no buzz signifying the generation of electricity.

Iraqi engineers say American fears about the dam’s structural integrity are overblown.

Despite the scare stories, “nobody has asked us to leave,” a technician identified only as “Marwan” told the German news service Deutsche Welle in April. Marwan has worked at the Mosul Dam power plant for three decades and lives in the adjacent village, the first in the path of destruction if the dam gives way.

Despite the security threats and preparations for battle, Mosul remains lighted at night.

“We cannot ignore all of the people, the civilization, because of ISIS,” said Col. Mawlod, explaining the reasoning for using the dam to provide water and electricity to the terrorist-controlled city. “We can’t punish all of them because of ISIS.”

When pressed whether cutting electricity for an imminent Mosul operation is an option, the colonel staunchly defends the mission of the dam to provide vital services and energy to ordinary Iraqis.

“If we hurt civilians, what’s the difference between us and ISIS?”

Guarding the dam

On a hilltop outpost, female Syrian peshmerga fighters welcome us for an interview. They are part of three groups guarding the dam — just one part of a 600-mile front line against the Islamic State.

These women are refugees in Kurdistan — kicked out of Syria by the PYG Syrian Kurdish force. The Kurdish area of Syria, which borders Iraq, is colloquially called “Rojava,” the Kurdish word for east. The women at Mosul dam are Rojava Peshmerga and are led by Capt. Gulestan Yusuf Ahmed. She is from the village of Hamishnah and is responsible for the women in this unit, named Sunforce.

The captain left Syria in 2011 at the start of the Syrian civil war. Fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan, she linked up with peshmerga fighters training to fight the Assad regime. But when she returned, opposition from PYG forces kept them from fighting and forced her out of Syria again.

She harbors a deep resentment for the PYG. “We don’t want to be house workers,” she said during an interview in her makeshift office, one of a dozen caravans where the women guarding the dam sleep and eat.

They serve at checkpoints and on night patrol. Many are married with children. “We want to go back and protect our land.”

She is well aware of the media attention female peshmerga fighters have garnered during the war with the Islamic State. She views the attention positively and said it changes the image of women in a traditionally conservative society.

“Of course we prove for everyone that a woman can run a house and can run a country. Kurdish women take part in every revolution,” she said.

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