BAGHDAD — Islamic State militants have reduced the amount of water flowing to government-held areas in Iraq’s western Anbar province, an official said Thursday, the latest in the vicious war as Iraqi forces struggle to claw back ground held by the extremists in the Sunni heartland.
It’s not the first time that water has been used as a weapon of war in Mideast conflicts and in Iraq in particular. Earlier this year, the Islamic State group reduced the flow through another lock outside the militant-held town of Fallujah, also in Anbar province. But the extremists soon reopened it after criticism from residents.
The IS captured Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, last month, marking its most significant victory since a U.S.-led coalition began an air campaign against the extremists last August. Earlier last year, the Islamic State had blitzed across much of western and northern Iraq, capturing key Anbar cities and also Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city that lies to the north of Baghdad.
Also Thursday, U.N. officials urgently called for almost $498 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 reduced flow of water through the militant-held dam on the Euphrates River will threaten irrigation systems and water treatment plants in nearby areas controlled by troops and tribes opposed to the extremist group, provincial council member Taha Abdul-Ghani told The Associated Press.
Abdul-Ghani said there would be no immediate effect on Shiite areas in central and southern Iraq, saying water is being diverted to those areas from the Tigris River.
The United Nations had said on Wednesday that 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.
In Brussels, U.N. officials said Thursday that the needs of Iraqis affected by the fighting are huge and growing, 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 co-ordinator 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.”
At a one-day conference in Paris this week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had pressed his case 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.