Updated Aug. 17 2:44 p.m. E.T.
When Saddam Hussein built the Mosul dam three decades ago it was meant to serve as a symbol of the strength of Iraq and his leadership. He was following a tradition of big, but often ill-considered infrastructure projects in some Middle East dictatorships that seem more like a muscle-flex by a country’s leader than a project for the people.
Now that dam — the country’s biggest, holding back 11 billion cubic meters of water and producing over 1,000 megawatts of electricity — is at the center of a military struggle between Iraqi and Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which took control of the structure on Aug. 7.
Kurdish forces retook part of the dam early Sunday, the Associated Press reported, aided by U.S. and Iraqi air strikes. The Americans brought along some serious hardware to the fight; a combination of bombers, fighter jets, attack planes and unmanned drones, according to U.S. Central Command, conducted 14 strikes on Sunday and nine the day before. The show of force proves that the threat posed by ISIS control of the dam is finally being taken seriously.
“We told the Iraqi government a month ago that we needed to protect this strategic structure,” said Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraq parliament for the Civil Democratic Alliance, and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “Any group manipulating this dam away from its original purpose is dangerous.”
Control of the dam gives ISIS the ability to do exactly that, and the consequences could be devastating. The group has several ways to leverage its control of the dam, say experts. “One of the things Saddam Hussein was really good at in his reign was choking off water supplies to Shi‘ites in the south,” said Christopher Harmer, who is a senior analyst with the Institute for the Study of War, and who served several stints with the U.S. army in Iraq. “ISIS now controls the water flowing into Baghdad and to the agrarian areas south of Baghdad. They are in a position to impose a famine on the rest of Iraq.”
Alternatively, the militants could destroy the dam, sending a 60-ft. wave ripping down the Tigris River, washing away Mosul, a city of 1.5 million people, and days later flooding Baghdad with meters of water. ISIS is unlikely to do that while Mosul remains under its control. But it means that Iraqi forces must take control of the dam, said Harmer, before making a move on Mosul.
But even with U.S. military help, retaking the large piece of infrastructure will not be easy. The ISIS militant army, which a year ago seemed like a relatively small extremist faction in Syria, now controls swaths of territory both there and here in Iraq, as well as shored-up weapons and influence.
The fear now is that with control of water and electricity, the dream of creating a caliphate — or an Islamic state — is becoming closer to a reality for the extremists, famed for enforcement of strict Islamic law, beheadings and massacres.
“Al-Qaeda has always been just a terrorist organization,” said Harmer. ISIS broke off from al-Qaeda last year and has since promoted itself as the premier jihadist organization. “Al-Qaeda kind of, sort of, talked about establishing a caliphate sometime in the future, but they never had any stated ambition of taking over a state. ISIS is showing a differing level of ambition. ISIS has said, We are going to run a state and therefore we are going to provide all of the state services.”
Even if ISIS doesn’t use Iraq’s biggest dam as a weapon, its fragile condition means it still poses an enormous threat while in the militants’ hands. In September 2006, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers described it as “the most dangerous dam in the world.” The dam is built on an unstable bed of sand, slit and clay and requires daily grouting just to hold back the water.
“Iraq alone cannot deal with this. The Mosul dam is in a critical situation with ISIS in control,” said al-Abayachi. Just weeks of neglect could see the dam burst sending flood waters that could leave hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead in its path. “We need help from the international community.”
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