BAGHDAD (AP) — Islamic State militants have reduced the amount of water flowing to government-held areas in Iraq's western Anbar province, officials said Thursday, a move that highlights the use of water as a weapon of war and puts more pressure on Iraqi forces struggling to claw back ground held by the extremists in the Sunni heartland.
The development is not the first time that water has been used as a weapon in Mideast conflicts and in Iraq in particular. Earlier this year, the Islamic State group reduced the flow through a lock outside the militant-held town of Fallujah, also in Anbar province. But the extremists soon reopened it after criticism from residents.
Last summer, IS militants took control of the Mosul Dam — the largest in Iraq — and threatened to flood Baghdad and other major cities, but Iraqi and Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes, later recaptured the facility.
The battle for the dam followed the Islamic State's blitz across much of western and northern Iraq earlier last year, an advance that captured key Anbar cities and also Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city that lies to the north of Baghdad. The Islamic State group also gained large swaths of land in neighboring Syria and proclaimed a self-styled caliphate on the territory it controls, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.
Last month, the IS captured Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, marking its most significant victory since a U.S.-led coalition began an air campaign against the extremists last August.
On Wednesday, IS militants closed the locks on a militant-held dam on the Euphrates River near Ramadi, reducing the flow downstream and threatening irrigation systems and water treatment plants in nearby areas controlled by troops and tribes opposed to the extremist group.
Anbar councilman, Taha Abdul-Ghani said the move will not only make the lives of people living in the affected areas more difficult but it could also pose a threat to the security forces fighting to recapture Ramadi. If water levels drop significantly, he said, the extremists could cross the Euphrates River on foot.
"The militants might take advantage of that and attack troops deployed along the river" and the nearby Habaniya military base, Abdul-Ghani told The Associated Press.
The base has been used as a staging ground for Iraqi troops and allied Shiite militias in the fight against the militants in Ramadi and surrounding areas.
Thousands of people in government-held towns of Khalidiya and Habaniya are already suffering from shortages of drinking water because purification plants along the Euphrates have all but shut down because of already low water levels on account of the summer weather. The residents of the towns get only two hours a day of water through their pipes, he said.
"With the summer heat and lack of water, the lives of these people are in danger and some are thinking of leaving their homes," added Abdul-Ghani, and urged the government to use the air force to bomb some of the gates of al-Warar dam and release the water.
He said there was no impact on Shiite areas in central and southern Iraq, saying water is being diverted to those areas from the Tigris River.
Abu Ahmed, a farmer with a vegetable farm near Khalidiya, said he could lose all his crops because of lack of irrigation water. Now, the water is lower than level of his water pumping machines.
"I used to irrigate my crops every three day. If the situation continues like this, my vegetables will die," said Abu Ahmed, using his nickname because of fears for his own life.
The United Nations said Wednesday it was looking into reports that IS had reduced the flow of water through the al-Warar dam.
"The use of water as a tool of war is to be condemned in no uncertain terms," the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters. "These kinds of reports are disturbing, to say the least."
He said the U.N. and humanitarian partners will try to "fill in the gaps" to meet water needs for the affected population.
On Thursday, U.N. officials meeting in Brussels to launch an Iraqi aide operation urgently called for $497 million in donations to provide shelter, food, water and other life-saving services for the next six months to Iraqis displaced or affected by the fighting between government forces and the Islamic State group.
The needs of Iraqis affected by the fighting are huge and growing, the officials said, with more than 8 million people requiring immediate support, and potentially 10 million by the end of 2015.
Lise Grande, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, said the aid operation, which she called one of the most complex and volatile in the world, was hanging by a thread.
"Humanitarian partners have been doing everything they can to help. But more than 50 per cent of the operation will be shut down or cut back if money is not received immediately," Grande told members of the European Parliament, according to a U.N. news release. The consequences of such a reduction in aid, Grande said, would be "catastrophic."
"While we search for solutions to end the violence, we must do everything in our power to help," said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Kyung-Wha Kang, also in Brussels. "The people of Iraq need our help, now."
Earlier this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had pressed his case at a Paris conference, calling for more support from the 25 countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group, asking for more armament and ammunition.
"We're relying on ourselves, but fighting is very hard this way," al-Abadi said before the conference Tuesday.
The coalition has mustered a mix of airstrikes, intelligence sharing and assistance for Iraqi ground operations against the extremists. Al-Abadi said more was needed, with Iraq reeling after troops pulled out of Ramadi without a fight and abandoned U.S.-supplied tanks and weapons.
Associated Press Writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and John-Thor Dahlburg in Brussels contributed to this report.