On Jan. 21, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iraq's prime minister in Davos, Switzerland, and handed him a personal note from President Barack Obama pleading for urgent action.
Obama's confidential message to Haider al-Abadi, which was confirmed to Reuters by two U.S. officials and has not been previously reported, was not about Islamic State or Iraq's sectarian divide. It was about a potential catastrophe posed by the dire state of the country's largest dam, whose collapse could unleash a flood killing tens of thousands of people and trigger an environmental disaster.
The president's personal intervention indicates how the fragile Mosul Dam has moved to the forefront of U.S. concerns over Iraq, reflecting fears its failure would also undermine U.S. efforts to stabilize Abadi's government and complicate the war against Islamic State.
It also reflected growing frustration. The U.S. government felt Baghdad was failing to take the threat seriously enough, according to interviews with officials at the State Department, Pentagon, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other agencies.
"They dragged their feet on this," said a U.S. official, who like the other sources declined to be identified.
(Maps showing expected flooding impact of dam break on Mosul and Baghdad: tmsnrt.rs/1SdaVRm tmsnrt.rs/1SdaDKp)
The Iraqi government declined official comment on those assertions and on the Obama letter.
A U.S. government briefing paper released in late February says that the 500,000 to 1.47 million Iraqis living in the highest-risk areas along the Tigris River "probably would not survive" the flood's impact unless they evacuated. Swept hundreds of miles along in the waters would be unexploded ordnance, chemicals, bodies and buildings.
"Governance and rule of law (would be) disrupted by widespread human, material, economic, and environmental losses," says the paper.
U.S. officials would not disclose the precise contents of Obama's letter.
Its impact on Iraq's government could not be confirmed. But 11 days after it was delivered, Iraqi Minister of Water Resources Muhsin al-Shammari's own political party removed him from responsibility over the dam, according to public statements. The water minister has publicly downplayed the threat posed by the dam.
On March 2, Iraq signed a $296 million contract with Italy's Trevi Group (TFI.MI) to reinforce the dam in northern Iraq, which has needed that work since it was built in the early 1980s on veins of water-soluble gypsum. Italy has said it will send 450 troops to help protect the dam.That's good news, but...
However, Trevi says it will take four months to prepare the work site. And the 2.2 mile (3.5 km)-long hydroelectric dam faces its highest risk between April and June from rising water levels due to melting snow.The clock is ticking....
Grout to reinforce the dam must be trucked in from Turkey, officials said, because the previous factory is in Mosul, now controlled by Islamic State militants.