RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The death of a U.S. Marine in Iraq this week was a reminder that American forces are, again, very much at risk there. He was killed by ISIS rocket fire on a camp where the U.S. is training Iraqi forces hoping to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic state. Just outside Mosul is Iraq's biggest dam, a prize for all the forces in the region. NPR's Alice Fordham was there shortly after ISIS occupied Mosul back in 2014.
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ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: I'm in the searing heat of northern Iraq, among its dry, scrubby landscape. But what I'm standing in front of is a wide, shimmering, blue lake held back by the concrete and steel infrastructure of the Mosul dam.
MONTAGNE: Now, that was the summer of 2014, and Alice joins us from Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan this morning. Good morning.
FORDHAM: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: At the time the fear was - I gather - that ISIS would take over the dam, but now the fear is of something even more destructive. Tell us about that.
FORDHAM: Well, what we're worried about now is that the dam could collapse, and that would have a huge impact. The State Department warned earlier this year that, and I quote, "the Mosul dam faces a serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning." Now, the state estimates that somewhere between half a million and one and a half million people would be affected, that Mosul, where hundreds of thousands of people live, could be under 45-feet of water in some places. A few days later, the flood would reach Baghdad and maybe get up to 33 feet in some places. Large parts of the country's infrastructure would be destroyed. Electricity would be knocked out. There's huge risks.
MONTAGNE: I mean, that's pretty stunning. Why is this huge and important dam so unstable?
FORDHAM: Well, it's been fragile, actually, ever since it was built under Saddam Hussein and the 1980s. It was built largely on soft rock, gypsum, and it needs constantly shoring up with injections of concrete. It needs to be maintained.
MONTAGNE: OK, so the - ISIS is controlling Mosul and has for nearly 2 years. Who controls the dam?
FORDHAM: Well, right now it is not under ISIS control, but it was briefly. So to go back to that clip you played from when I was on the dam in 2014, the fear at the time was that ISIS would take it and have the power to wreak havoc with flooding. And they did take it, but only for about two weeks. Now, during the fighting, engineers fled. Maintenance wasn't done, and after was taken back, with coalition airstrikes and Iraqi security forces, some key equipment was missing. And also, since it was taken back, that crucial maintenance hasn't happened as it should, partly because of logistical problems. It's very close to ISIS-held areas. Now an Italian company has agreed to maintain the dam, but they will need months to get set up there. So this is not a problem we're seeing a solution to quickly.
MONTAGNE: Well, two years into ISIS control of Mosul, the big talk is of taking back Mosul. Where exactly does that stand?
FORDHAM: Well, yesterday the Iraqi Ministry of Defense said the operation to retake Mosul had begun. They are honestly probably overstating things a little bit. What has actually happened is that some clearing operations have begun close to a small town called Makhmur, which is about 50 miles southeast of Mosul. Now, Makhmur is interesting at the moment because it's where a lot of the trading is happening, of groups of fighters who, it's hoped, will one day move into Mosul. And that includes Americans training Iraqi security forces among others. But the various bases there have been repeatedly hit by ISIS missiles. And, as you mentioned, a Marine who was providing protection for the training was killed a few days ago, and others were injured. So actually, although the commanders are saying this is the beginning of the Mosul operation, other soldiers in the area speaking to us are saying the goal was basically to secure those villages close to those bases.
MONTAGNE: What other role, if any, is the U.S. playing in these first steps towards Mosul?
FORDHAM: So American military officials have cautioned that they are expecting tens of thousands of troops to be necessary to actually retake the city. They're participating actively in training them, but they don't say that their trained, ready to be deployed just yet. Of course, there are coalition airstrikes in support of these latest missions and also ongoing inside the city. There was an incident at the weak end in fact. A Facebook group where Mosul journalists report anonymously on what happens there said there was a huge airstrike on the university at the weak end, which was a place ISIS had been using as a headquarters. They also said there were up to 20 civilian deaths in that strike. The United States says only that it's assessing those allegations. And political officials, like the president's special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, have also said the Mosul the operations are already ongoing because there have been joint Iraqi and coalition battles that have taken strategic roads and towns close to Mosul. But the battle for the city itself probably is still some way off.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Alice Fordham, speaking to us from Erbil in northern Iraq. Thanks very much.
FORDHAM: You're welcome, Renee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.