Italian Troops in Iraq Are Trying to Prevent a Watery Catastrophe
Elite troops protecting the Mosul Dam might already be in Islamic State’s crosshairs
by SÉBASTIEN ROBLIN
Italy has deployed helicopters, drones, fighter jets and more than 1,300 troops for the war on ISIS in Iraq. Rome’s contingent includes a battalion of 450 elite soldiers whose job it is to safeguard the strategic Mosul Dam while an Italian engineering firm undertakes critical repairs.
If the dam breaks, the resulting flood could submerge Mosul in 60 feet of water — and wreak havoc as far as Baghdad, 340 miles away.
In the past, ISIS has avoided damaging the dam, as a breach could devastate the most populous city under its control. However, ISIS communications that leaked in September suggest that the fanatical group sees things differently now that it’s likely to lose control of Mosul to besieging Iraqi forces.
In May 2016, War Is Boring contributor Benedetta Argentieri reported on the vulnerability of the 113-meter-high Mosul Dam.
The dam’s foundations rest on soft, soluble gypsum bedrock that erodes and develops cavities at a startling rate. The cavities can fill with water, leading to a buildup of pressure that could eventually burst the dam.
The best way to prevent that is to constantly fill the cavities with grout. Engineers have poured more than 95,000 tons of grout since the dam’s construction began in 1981.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed the dam and, in 2006, described it as “the most dangerous dam in the world” on account of the erosion problem. If the dam were to break, the Army Corps of Engineers reported, more than 11 billion cubic meters of water would propel a wave 20 meters high that could sweep Mosul off the map in four hours — and even inundate parts of Baghdad under 15 feet of water.
Half a million people could die. The U.S. government considered the risk to be so great that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad began flood-proofing itself.
Mosul Dam lies just 50 kilometers from ISIS-held Mosul — and a mere 10 kilometers away from the main front line. On Aug. 7, 2014, ISIS even managed to briefly capture the dam. Nine days later, American air power and Kurdish artillery began pounding militants around the facility. A Kurdish counteroffensive drove ISIS from the dam by Aug. 19.
The structure clearly suffered under the militants’ occupation. ISIS fighters broke one of the water-outlet gates. Many experienced workers fled.
Still, Iraqi ministers and workers at the dam objected to the Americans’ dire assessment of the dam’s condition. The Iraqis pointed out that the dam has withstood greater water pressure in the past without breaking — although they admit they lack the equipment to locate and deal with cavities that occur at depths below 120 meters.
The Army Corps of Engineers has installed instruments to measure the presence of cavities at those depths, and claimed in a Jan. 30, 2016 report that there were an “unprecedented level of untreated voids.”
Rome to the Rescue
After negotiations and delays, the Iraqi government finally awarded a contract for dam repairs to the sole bidder, the Italian engineering firm Trevi. An advance team arrived in April 2016, and since then Trevi has moved in equipment including underground 3D mapping technology and 92 heavy trucks, allowing its team to perform a more thorough reinforcement operation than the local Iraqi maintenance staff is capable of doing on its own.
Between 300 and 450 Italian technicians now reside at the dam. 1,200 Kurdish contract laborers work alongside them.
An American company, Aecom, joined the repair operation as part of a separate, $52-million contract with Baghdad. Its scientists, engineers and geologists help to operate internet-based instruments for monitoring the condition of the dam.
A battalion of Italian army troops protects the repair effort. The first 100 soldiers of Task Force Praesidium arrived in May 2016. They’re part of the 6th Bersaglieri Regiment based in Trapani, Sicily.
The bersaglieri, or “sharpshooters,” are elite light infantry units founded in the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1836, before Italy unified. They wore black feathered caps and distinguished themselves with their marksmanship and their rapid marches. Today there are six, battalion-size bersaglieri regiments.
Bersaglieri regiments played a major role in the unification of Italy. In 1870 the 12th Bersaglieri famously stormed the Pia Gate in Rome, ending the Papal States’ control of the city. After World War I, the bersaglieri adopted bicycles as their main mode of transportation. During the Cold War they received tracked and wheeled armored personnel carriers.
The 6th Bersaglieri deployed to Iraq with Lynx four-by-four vehicles and Bear armored personnel carriers.
The Lynx is Italy’s answer to the American Humvee. It boasts mine-resistant features including a v-shape inner hull elevated a half-meter above the ground, a collapsible floor structure and a modular armor system. The 6.5-ton Lynx seats four passengers and mounts a machine gun on top.
The Bear is an Italian mine-resistant armored personnel carrier designed for logistical roles — although it, too, can mount a defensive weapon on top. The 18-ton vehicle carries up to 10 passengers in a specially protected compartment.
The bersaglieri also deployed to Iraq with mortars and anti-tank weapons. In addition, a helicopter detachment with four Mangusta attack helicopters, four Caiman transport copters and 130 personnel — drawn from the 5th and 7th Aviation Regiments of the Friuli Air Assault Brigade — can provide air support for the dam-protection force from its base in Erbil.
The two-seat Mangusta is the Italian equivalent of the U.S. Army’s Apache attack helicopter. Armored to resist light anti-aircraft weapons, the Mangusta is armed with a 20-millimeter cannon and can carry rocket pods and Hellfire anti-tank missiles.
The Dutch-manufactured Caiman can haul 20 troops a distance of up to 500 miles. An infantry platoon from the 66th Trieste Air Mobile Regiment of the Friuli Brigade is assigned to the helicopter detachment for rescue missions.
Operation ‘Prima Parthica’
Before the bersaglieri arrived, Rome had already committed 750 military personnel to the war on ISIS as part of Operation Prima Parthica, which costs Italy an estimated $200 million annually.
The largest contingent includes troops from the Folgore Airborne Brigade, including the 187th Parachute Regiment based in Livorno and the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment, a special forces unit. One source stated that troops from the 185th Parachute Artillery Regiment are also present.
The parachutists run training courses for battalions of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters at the Kurdish Training Coordination Center in Erbil.
Training includes basic infantry courses lasting up to six weeks. Advanced classes impart skills such as recognizing and defusing roadside bombs, countering enemy snipers, operational planning, artillery support and urban tactics. By July 30, 2016, the center had trained around 9,000 Kurdish fighters.
There have been reports that 30 Italian special forces troops from the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment deployed to advise Iraqi troops during the Battle of Ramadi. Ten or so Italian special forces soldiers run training courses in Kirkuk — and another detachment designated Task Force 44 is based in Baghdad.
There are also 100 carabinieri military police in Baghdad, training Iraqi policemen in riot-control, forensics, human rights, SWAT tactics, counterterrorism investigations and bomb-disposal.
Finally, 220 Italian air force personnel from 6th Stormo — home-based in Ghedi, Italy — maintain and operate four Tornado attack planes at Ahmed Al Jaber air base in Kuwait. The Tornadoes have been flying reconnaissance missions over Iraq since November 2014 using Rafael Reccelite camera pods.
Two MQ-1C Predator drones from 32nd Stormo conduct surveillance missions. Controllers in Kuwait handle the drones’ takeoffs and landings, while pilots in Italy fly the main part of each mission remotely via satellite.
A KC-767A tanker plane rounds out the Italian air force contingent. By May 2016, the detachment had flown more than 1,250 sorties totaling more than 7,000 flight hours.
Conquest of Death
Trevi’s contract to repair the dam is worth $296 million dollars. The bersaglieri deployment costs around $50 million a year. Italian media has criticized the deployment on cost grounds … and for putting Italian lives at risk.
One analyst argued that the troops are a sop to American political pressure on Italy to do more against ISIS. Given that Peshmerga troops also patrol the dam, some commentators have argued that stationing Italian troops at the facility is unnecessary — and could even provoke an ISIS attack.
In September 2016, the Italian investigative journalism website Wikilao revealed that Western intelligence had intercepted details of an ISIS plot to attack Mosul Dam.
“The planning for this operation is well underway,” the intercepted message stated. The “huge” attack, code-name Al Mazwat Mat or “Conquest of Death,” would have involved 200 “elite” ISIS fighters from Tunisia, France, Libya and Russia redeployed from the ISIS capital of Raqqa in Syria.
The plan was for the fighters to rendezvous in the town of Badush, 15 kilometers outside of Mosul, where ISIS had been digging tunnels to get them closer to the dam. The movement of fighters for the attack reportedly tipped off Western intel agencies.
The main attack would have involved 30 trucks following behind a dozen Chechen suicide bombers driving vehicle-based IEDs. Long-range howitzers would have provided artillery support along with missiles concealed in refrigerator trucks. Snipers were supposed to pick off the dam’s guards.
The order to launch the attack would have been transmitted by top ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. The plot may reflect exactly the scenario the anti-ISIS coalition fears the most. But with surprise now impossible, the attack seems unlikely to ever take place. Moreover, penetrating the dam’s defensive perimeter could prove difficult.
For one, Mosul Dam’s Peshmerga protectors include elite fighters known as zeravani. A Norwegian volunteer fighting alongside the Peshmerga released a video depicting an ISIS attack on a Kurdish outpost south of the Mosul Dam that occurred on April 4, 2016. In the video, a BRDM-2 armored car spearheading the attack is set ablaze by Kurdish rocket-propelled grenades.
Trevi began full-scale repairs on the dam in October 2016. The work could continue for as long as 18 months. Italian defense minister Roberta Notti said the defending troops would remain as long as two years, if necessary.
By then ISIS will likely have been expelled from Mosul. The Italian troops could remain to ensure that the dam which provides electricity for 1.7 million Iraqis does not also wreak mass destruction upon them — by accident, or as a result of sabotage.