Islamic State militants overtook Iraq's largest dam, another oilfield, and three additional towns on Sunday, increasing their control of crucial natural resources and infrastructure while forcing many thousands of civilians to flee their homes.
"Capture of the Mosul Dam after an offensive of barely 24 hours could give the Sunni militants the ability to flood major Iraqi cities, sharply raising the stakes in their bid to topple Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government," Reuters reports.
Kurdish forces had previously warned that they were struggling to defend the nearly 650-mile northern border they now share with the militants, according to the Washington Post.
Speaking for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a UN official said Monday the fighting has triggered a "humanitarian crisis" and called on Iraqis to assist the displaced and work together to address "the urgent security needs of the nation." Many refugees left on foot, and are now lacking food, water, medicine, and shelter.
The Mosul Dam, which harnesses the power of the Tigris River to provide electricity to the 1.7 million residents of Mosul — the city seized by Islamic State insurgents in June — is a key piece of infrastructure in the conflict-ridden region. In July, Foreign Policy correspondent Keith Johnson wrote that "Iraq's hydroelectric facilities represent a soft underbelly in the fight against ISIS."
Earlier this year, Islamic State (then going by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) gained control of Fallujah Dam and closed its gates, causing flooding in Anbar province and drought in Southern Iraq. Militants are also thought to be advancing on Haditha Dam, through which they could disrupt drinking water supply for Baghdad and the surrounding region.
Even if Islamic State fighters didn't manipulate the dam for nefarious purposes, it remains to be seen whether the militants can properly manage what is widely acknowledged to be a failing facility. Of the Mosul Dam, the New York Times writes:
Keeping the dam, and other important infrastructure of the Iraqi state, out of militant hands has been a priority of the Iraqi government and the American military advisers who recently rushed back to Iraq.
Seven years ago, a report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a Pentagon watchdog, highlighted structural problems at the dam, and its warnings about safety hinted at the catastrophic possibilities should the dam fall into the hands of ISIS. The report warned that a failure at the dam could send a 65-foot wave across parts of northern Iraq. “The worst-case scenario would be a significant loss of life and property,” the report said.
Kurdish pesh merga ("those who confront death") fighters have requested military assistance from the U.S. to help fight back against Islamic State militants and regain control of the mountainous area. The US State Department said it was "actively monitoring the situation" and facilitating coordination between officials in Baghdad and Erbil, seat of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.
However, despite ongoing political clashes between Kurds, Shiite, and Sunni factions in Iraq, Shiite leader Nouri al-Maliki did on Monday order the Iraqi air force to assist Kurds in a counter-attack.