Islamic State militants who last week captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, had one demand for workers: Keep it going.
Arriving in their Toyota pickup trucks, armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles and wearing a patchwork of military uniforms, robes and turbans, jubilant militants from the al-Qaeda breakaway group told workers hiding in management offices they would get their salaries as long as the dam continued to produce electricity for the region under their control, according to a technician who was at the dam when nearly 500 militants drove off Kurdish troops.
Islamic State’s rampage through northern Iraq has inspired terror as stories spread of beheadings and crucifixions. At the same time, its fighters are capturing the strategic assets needed to fund the Islamic caliphate it announced in June and strengthen its grip on the territory already captured.
“These extremists are not just mad,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center in Qatar. “There’s a method to their madness, because they’ve managed to amass cash and natural resources, both oil and water, the two most important things. And of course they are going to use those as a way of continuing to grow and strengthen.”
The dam is the most important asset the group captured since taking Nineveh province in June. The group controls several oil and gas fields in western Iraq and eastern Syria, generating millions of dollars in daily revenue.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the fight against militants in Iraq will be a “long-term project,” tying the prospects for success to whether the nation’s leaders quickly form an inclusive government. The U.S. conducted several strikes last week against Islamic State fighters attacking Yezidi civilians near Sinjar.
Iraq’s President Fouad Masoum yesterday asked Haidar al-Abadi to try to form a new cabinet, in a bid to end the political deadlock that has hobbled the country’s efforts to roll back the Islamist insurgency.
The group still controls the dam. Fighter jets and drones were flying over it on Aug. 9 without hitting it, said the technician. The group, which used to call itself Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, is using the dam as a hideout because it knows it wouldn’t be bombed, he said, declining to give his name out of fear for his safety.
The dam was completed in 1986 and its generators can produce as much as 1010 megawatts of electricity, according to the website of the Iraqi State Commission for Dams and Reservoirs.
Aziz Alwash, an environmental adviser to the Water Resources Ministry, said he’s concerned the militants will use the dam to blackmail the government. The dam needs cement injections as part of its maintenance, he said.
“Mosul city would drown within three hours” if the dam broke, he said Aug. 10 in a telephone interview. Other cities down the road to Baghdad would also be inundated while the capital would be under water within four hours. The dam has a capacity of 20-30 billion cubic meters, he said.
The dam “provides the group with leverage against the Iraqi government and shows that they’re a serious threat to the stability of the Iraqi state,” Natasha Underhill, a political scientist at Nottingham Trent University, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “The group is rapidly developing its ideal of creating a caliphate.”
The dam had been under the federal government’s control and the Peshmerga fighters stepped in to fill the gap when the Islamic State captured Nineveh province, Alwash said.
In a video posted on YouTube on Aug. 9, an Islamic State militant can be seen pointing to an abandoned military uniform and a switched-on TV in a small room at the dam saying that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces had “left everything behind and ran for their lives.”
Once their excitement over their latest gain subsided, the militants asked an engineer to bring electricians from town, the technician said. He came back with three. They fixed power generators that had stalled in the four days of fighting that preceded the dam’s takeover, he said. They also tried to get engineers running a dam in Syria to Iraq to help with the maintenance of the Mosul Dam’s power plant.
“Islamic State is trying to present itself as a state rather than just a militia,” Hassan Hassan, an analyst with the Abu Dhabi-based Delma Institute, said on Aug. 10. “These dams and oilfields have a strategic benefit, because the militants think they’re there to stay. They’re the ones providing services to people.”
Despite their brutal tactics which include mass execution of Shiite Muslims and members of religious minorities, the Islamist militants have been welcomed by some Sunnis in both Iraq and Syria. Some residents hailed the militants because they hadn’t had electricity for days, the technician at the dam said, adding that they blamed the Kurdish fighters for the power failure.
“It’s been a big mistake for some people to think that these guys are some ragtag outfit,” said Shaikh of the Brookings Institution.