The Army Corps estimates the flood would kill a half-million people immediately, while the aftershocks, such as power outage and drought, would kill many more. (Not coincidentally, Iraq was the site of Noah's Ark.) It would likely be the largest human-induced single loss of life in history.
Many Iraqi officials, unfortunately, exhibit a cavalier attitude toward these dangers, further exacerbating the problem. They reject as unnecessary, for example, the Army Corps recommendation to build a second dam downstream as a back-up.
Yet, were a catastrophic failure to take place, who would be blamed for the unprecedented loss of life? Americans, of course. And understandably so, for the Bush administration took upon itself the overhauling of Iraqi life, including the Mosul Dam. Specifically, the U.S. taxpayer funded attempts to shore it up by with improved grouting, at a cost of US$27 million. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has, however, judged these efforts mismanaged and ineffective.
Massive Iraqi deaths would surely spawn conspiracy theories about American malevolence, inspiring epic rage against the U.S. government and creating a deep sense of guilt among Americans themselves. Yet, this blame and remorse would be entirely misplaced.
Saudi and other Arab aid – not U.S. monies – funded what was originally called the "Saddam Dam." A German-Italian consortium headed by Hochtief Aktiengesellschaft built the US$1.5 billion structure in 1981-84. It had a primarily political goal, to bolster Saddam Hussein's regime during the Iran-Iraq war. The dam, in other words, had nothing to do with the United States – not in funding, construction, or purpose. Nonetheless, misbegotten American policy has made it an American headache.
Mosul's dam replicates a myriad of lesser problems in Iraqi life that have landed in the lap of Americans (and, to a much lesser extent, their coalition partners), such as provisioning fuel and electricity, working schools and hospitals, a fair political and legal system, and an environment secure from terrorism.
Since April 2003, I have argued that this shouldering of responsibility for Iraq's domestic life has harmed both Americans and Iraqis. It yokes Americans with unwanted and unnecessary loss of life, financial obligations, and political burdens. For Iraqis, as the dam example suggests, it encourages an irresponsibility with potentially ruinous consequences.
A change of course is needed, and quickly. The Bush administration needs to hand back responsibility for Iraq's ills, including and especially the Mosul Dam. More broadly, it should abandon the deeply flawed and upside-down approach of "war as social work," whereby U.S. military efforts are judged primarily by the benefits they bring to the defeated enemy, rather than to Americans.