Iraq's biggest dam at risk

U.S. warns of 65-foot wave flooding Mosul

October 30, 2007|By Peter Spiegel and Christian Berthelsen | Peter Spiegel and Christian Berthelsen,LOS ANGELES TIMES

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq warned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in May that the country's biggest dam, just up the Tigris River from the northern city of Mosul, is at risk of collapse, putting the city's 1.7 million people in danger of being inundated by a 65-foot flood wave.

The letter from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, co-signed by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is included in an audit to be published tomorrow. The report found that little or no progress has been made to shore up the Mosul Dam since the May warning, largely because a $27 million project funded by U.S. reconstruction money has been plagued by mismanagement and possible fraud.

Meanwhile, Iraqi soldiers rescued eight tribal sheiks who had been taken hostage a day earlier, killing four of the kidnappers and arresting six others in the operation, an Iraqi military spokesman said yesterday.

The 10 to 12 sheiks, both Sunni and Shiite, who were kidnapped are part of a movement in Diyala province to organize their tribes to fight the Sunni insurgent groups in their region, including al-Qaida in Iraq, that are attacking the U.S. military and the fledgling Iraqi government.

News of the rescue came amid grim news out of the same region yesterday, evidence that the area remains in flux. A suicide bomber on a bicycle killed 28 police officers in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province, and 20 decapitated bodies were found in the afternoon.

Although the new report falls short of saying that the dam's collapse could be imminent, the auditors exhort the U.S. Embassy to quickly put in place a new plan to shore up the dam. The audit noted that a study completed more than three years ago found "the risks are high" that the dam could fail.

The May 3 letter from Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had warned U.S. forces in December that they should move any American equipment away from the Tigris River floodplain near Mosul because of the dam's instability.

Petraeus and Crocker wrote that the warning applied to Iraqi civilians as well and urged al-Maliki to make the safety of the dam "a national priority" for the government.

"A catastrophic failure of the Mosul Dam would result in flooding along the Tigris River all the way to Baghdad," more than 200 miles south of Mosul, the letter warned. "Assuming a worst-case scenario, an instantaneous failure of Mosul Dam filled to its maximum operating level could result in a flood wave 20 meters [more than 65 feet] deep at the city of Mosul, which would result in a significant loss of life and property."

The report, written by the U.S. government's Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, found multiple failures in several of the 21 contracts awarded last year to repair the dam, including faulty construction and delivery of improper parts, and projects that were incomplete despite full payments.

The report did not detail the nationalities of the companies that had been awarded the contracts.

The dam, more than two miles wide, has been a problem for Iraqi engineers since it was completed under Saddam Hussein's regime in 1984. It was built in an area of shifting earth, which caused seepage within months of its completion and led investigators to determine that "the Mosul Dam site was fundamentally flawed."

Peter Spiegel and Christian Berthelsen write for the Los Angeles Times.

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