Islamic State using water as a weapon in western Iraq


This photo taken Wednesday, June 3, 2015, shows a destroyed bridge on the Euphrates river in northern Ramadi, Iraq. The Islamic State group destroyed the bridge with a car bomb to cut the northern entrance to the city, locals said. (AP Photo)

Gregory Dewar

Associated Press

BAGHDAD Islamic State militants have reduced the amount of water flowing to government-held areas in Iraq’s western Anbar province, officials said Thursday, a move that highlights the use of water as a weapon of war and puts more pressure on Iraqi forces struggling to claw back ground held by the extremists in the Sunni heartland.

The development is not the first time that water has been used as a weapon in Middle East conflicts and Iraq in particular. On Wednesday, Islamic State militants closed the locks on a militant-held dam on the Euphrates River near Ramadi, west of Baghdad, reducing the flow downstream and threatening irrigation systems and water treatment plants in nearby areas controlled by troops and tribes opposed to the extremist group. Earlier this year, the Islamic State group reduced the flow through a lock outside the militant-held town of Fallujah, also in Anbar province. But the extremists soon reopened it after criticism from residents.

Last summer, IS militants took control of the Mosul Dam, the largest in Iraq, and threatened to flood Baghdad and other major cities, but Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, later recaptured the facility.

The battle for the dam followed the Islamic State’s blitz across much of western and northern Iraq earlier last year, an advance that captured key Anbar cities and also Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that lies to the north of Baghdad. The Islamic State group also gained large swaths of land in neighboring Syria and proclaimed a self-styled caliphate on the territory it controls, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.

Map locates Ramadi dam in Iraq’s Anbar province.; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
Map locates Ramadi dam in Iraq’s Anbar province.; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;

Last month, the IS captured Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, marking its most significant victory since a U.S.-led coalition began an air campaign against the extremists last August.
Anbar councilman, Taha Abdul-Ghani said the move will not only make the lives of people living in the affected areas more difficult but it could also pose a threat to the security forces fighting to recapture Ramadi. If water levels drop significantly, he said, the extremists could cross the Euphrates River on foot.

“The militants might take advantage of that and attack troops deployed along the river” and the nearby Habbaniya military base, Abdul-Ghani said.

The base has been used as a staging ground for Iraqi troops and allied Shiite militias in the fight against the militants in Ramadi and surrounding areas.

Thousands of people in government-held towns of Khalidiya and Habbaniya are already suffering from shortages of drinking water because purification plants along the Euphrates have all but shut down because of already low water levels on account of the summer weather. The residents of the towns get only two hours a day of water through their pipes, he said.

“With the summer heat and lack of water, the lives of these people are in danger and some are thinking of leaving their homes,” added Abdul-Ghani, and urged the government to use the air force to bomb some of the gates of al-Warar dam and release the water.

He said there was no impact on Shiite areas in central and southern Iraq, saying water is being diverted to those areas from the Tigris River.

Abu Ahmed, a farmer with a vegetable farm near Khalidiya, said he could lose all his crops because of lack of irrigation water, which is lower than his water pumps.

“I used to irrigate my crops every three days. If the situation continues like this, my vegetables will die,” said Abu Ahmed, using his nickname out of fear.

The United Nations said Wednesday it was looking into reports that IS had reduced the flow of water through the al-Warar dam.

“The use of water as a tool of war is to be condemned in no uncertain terms,” said Stephane Dujarric, the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general. “These kinds of reports are disturbing, to say the least.”

He said the U.N. and humanitarian partners will try to “fill in the gaps” to meet water needs for the affected population.

On Thursday, U.N. officials meeting in Brussels to launch an Iraqi aide operation urgently called for $497 million in donations to provide shelter, food, water and other life-saving services for the next six months to Iraqis displaced or affected by the fighting between government forces and the Islamic State group.

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