Belmont Club

The Dambusters

The siege of Baghdad continues as ISIS gnaws at Baghdad’s links to its field armies. “Sunni radicals with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant destroyed a bridge north of Baghdad that Iraqi forces used as a key supply line.” A suicide truck bomb took out the bridge over the Tharthar canal.

The destruction of the bridge, just south of the city of Samarra, cuts a vital supply line for the Iraqi army and will further dampen its hopes of retaking the city of Tikrit, further north. …

The attack leaves the army and allied Shiite militias with only a secondary road that passes over Samarra dam bridge and is not suitable for the heaviest military vehicles.

Kurdish sources paint an unflattering picture of Maliki’s defenses. “Shafin Dizayee, a spokesman for autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Irbil, told McClatchy news service that ‘the picture is no longer scary. It has become close to a nightmare scenario, where we see [ISIL] expanding and taking control of its borders.'”

Another Kurdish official, Jabbar Yawar of the Peshmerga militia, told the news service that the towns of Iskandariya and Mahmoudiyah, just 6 miles south of Baghdad, had fallen.

The city of Samarra, north of Baghdad, also not is faring well. An official who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly, told McClatchy that Iraqi security forces were having a difficult time defending the city.

But the Kurds have a reason to be down on Maliki. They want to deal with Washington directly, claiming that without Obama’s help ISIS will overrun them too.  Maybe they will, unless they find a patron. But the most immediate threat is the struggle over the Iraq’s dams. “Islamist insurgents in the Islamic State … renewed their offensive … toward the key hydroelectric dam of Haditha. The … country’s second-biggest dam was a priority objective during the 2003 invasion.

Iraq’s biggest dam, the Mosul dam, is right next to a hotbed of Islamic State activity and poses catastrophic risk even if the terrorists don’t open the floodgates or blow it up. If the dam fails, scientists say Mosul could be completely flooded within hours and a 15-foot wall of water could crash into Baghdad.”

Iraq’s hydroelectric facilities represent a soft underbelly in the fight against ISIS. A compromised Haditha Dam would be a serious threat to western and southern Iraq: It provides power for the capital and controls water supplies for irrigation downstream. Using Haditha, ISIS could flood farmland and disrupt drinking water supplies like it did with a smaller dam near Fallujah this spring.

The Battle of the Dam

The Battle of the Dam

Bill Roggio in the Long War Journal has a detailed analysis the photographic record of of ISIS’ advance towards Haditha Dam. The New York Times says that Maliki might decide to spike the dam in retreat rather than see them in the hands of ISIS.

The ISIS militants advancing on the Euphrates River dam, about 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, were coming from the north, the northeast and the northwest. The fighters had already reached Burwana, on the eastern side of Haditha, and government forces were fighting to halt their advance, security officials said.

Alarmed army officers told employees to stay inside and to be prepared to open the dam’s floodgates if ordered to do so, one employee said.

The NYT sheds tears for the destruction of Iraq’s cultural artifacts. “It is not just religious monuments like the prophet Jonah’s tomb that have been destroyed, but also statues of Abu Tammam, a famous Arab poet, and Mullah Othman, a beloved 19th-century musician and poet.”

In this orgy of destruction is the key question is who’s on first? Just what the Obama administration is trying to achieve is not clear.

David Francis writes in CNBC that Iraq is now a proxy war between the US and Russia with the Russians backing Maliki, which would imply that Obama is on ISIS’ side. There is some superficial plausibility for this claim. Russia and Iran have sent Maliki arms and men. Simon Henderson of The Washington Institute For Near East Policy described the “double game” of Qatar, at once the principal backer of Hamas, and probably ISIS as well. Yet it is Washington’s closest partner.  By the standard of “guilt by association” the president has been keeping suspect company.

Most Qataris are Wahhabi, the ultraconservative branch of Islam also practiced in Saudi Arabia, though with some obvious differences (e.g., Qatari women are permitted to drive). But whereas King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia appears to have decided that political Islam is a major danger rivaling that of Shia Islam, the al-Thanis have taken the opposite view, perceiving the Sunni hardliners of Hamas and even Afghanistan’s Taliban as the way of the future. … The “Arab Spring” uprisings that began in late 2010 also affected Doha’s posture, with the government seemingly judging that further revolutions were inevitable, and that it should strive to be on the right side of this historical trend.

Yet he is on the other side of things too. Washington is still talking about sending Hellfire missiles to Iraq. There are American personnel in Baghdad. And it’s trying to suck up to Iran, who they also see as influential with Hamas. The Obama administration has paid that Gaza organization millions while the administration continues to claim that in it Israel “has no better friend”.

Who’s on first? Maybe it’s not baseball at all.  Perhaps Obama believes he can play N-dimensional chess. Dalia Dassa Kaye argues that Obama thinks he can compartmentalize all the issues in the region and solve them piecewise. “U.S. negotiators have tried to compartmentalize regional issues involving Iran during the talks, for example, by avoiding topics such as Iranian missile development, its links to terrorist groups, its human rights abuses.” He can be friends with everyone and double-deal with everyone: Maliki, Qatar, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel too — and no one will be the wiser.

Things have all been wired together in a very strange sort of way. Either all the plates are kept spinning in the air simultaneously or things come crashing to ground. The breathless audience sits in suspense waiting as the great magician saws the lady in half, levitate the table, tries pull a rabbit out of the hat and duplicates himself when all they can see is a stage filled with the detritus of his failed tricks.

Therein lies the problem. He might not be able to pull it off. Perhaps his diplomatic calculations contain a fatal flaw, an irreconcilable dynamic which in the end will flood not just one compartment, but all of them. The Haditha dam is a metaphor which reminds us that events sometimes overflow their boundaries. If a dam fails — and perhaps America long fulfilled that function — then all the bets are off.

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