Iraq's largest dam at risk of collapse, despite warning

Times Staff Writer

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq warned Prime Minister Nouri Maliki in May that the country's biggest dam is at risk of collapse, endangering the city of Mosul. But a report to be published today says little progress has been made, largely because of mismanagement of U.S. reconstruction money.

The May letter from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, cosigned by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, warns that the dam, just up the Tigris River from the northern city of Mosul, could fail. That puts the city's 1.7 million people at risk of being inundated by a 65-foot flood wave. The letter is included in an audit to be published today. The report found that little or no progress had been made to shore up the Mosul Dam since the May warning, largely because a $27-million project funded by the U.S. has been plagued by mismanagement and possible fraud.

Although the new report falls short of saying that a 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 2006 that they should move any American equipment away from the Tigris River flood plain near Mosul because of the dam's instability.

Petraeus and Crocker wrote that the warning clearly applied to Iraqi civilians as well, and urged 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, just over 2 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."

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

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