For weeks military
intelligence on the Mosul Dam, a major hydroelectric and irrigation
impoundment in northern Iraq, had delivered a variety of scenarios,
none of them good for coalition efforts to rebuild Iraq. One
version in early April indicated that Iraqi forces had wired
the structure for detonation. Another more recent report claimed
the dam's foundation was "leaking like a sieve and ready
Either case would set in motion
a cascade of catastrophe, unleashing as much as 12.5 billion
cu m of water pooled behind the 3.2-km-long earth-filled impoundment
thundering down the Tigris River Valley toward Mosul, the
second largest city in Iraq. The wave behind the 110-m-high
crest would take about two hours to reach the city of 1.7
million. Telecommunications systems operated sporadically
even before the war; how much advance warning the victims
would have these days is anybody's guess.
The dam is a key component in the
nation's power grid, with four 200-Mw turbines. Ranked by
the World Commission on Dams as the Middle East's fourth largest,
in reservoir capacity, it also captures spring snowmelt from
Turkey, about 70 miles north, and stores water for irrigation.
A breach would not only kill people downstream quickly, it
would also cause prolonged suffering through power outage
With so much at stake, two Army
commanders wanted to make a first-hand threat assessment.
On April 24, Col. Gregg Martin, commander of the 130th
Engineer Battalion, had already planned to make a site visit
to a bridge reconstruction project in Saddam Hussein's ancestral
homeland of Tikrit. With his "dam wizard" and deputy
brigade commander Lt. Col. Mark Holt and several other soldiers
in tow, Martin asked Col. Ray Palumbo, commander of the 12th
Aviation Brigade, for help with transportation. Palumbo has
a fleet of Blackhawk helicopters at his disposal at an airstrip
north of Baghdad. He assigned two choppers to the task, co-piloting
the lead bird himself.
Bridge requires structural repairs.
At Tikrit, Palumbo sets down inside
the perimeter of what was until April 13 Saddam Hussein's
hometown retreat. It is now the Fourth Infantry Division field
headquarters. The lavishly ornate compound is a monument to
conspicuous consumption and dubious taste, a Babylonian Graceland.
Martin doesn't dawdle. He makes a beeline for the base of
the 500-m, 18-pier span to get an update from Col. Bob Nicholson
of the 4th ID. As division engineer, he is preparing
to repair the crossing. Explosiveseither from retreating
Iraqis or from coalition airstrikes--have blown holes in the
deck between several spans. Divers are surveying the river,
which is out of its banks, flowing swiftly, but not yet at
flood stage. A six-man Army dive team is conducting surveys
of the piers and the under deck. Preliminary plans call for
repairs within the week, using a combination of assault floating
bridges and Mabey-Johnson bridging. Successfully spanning
the gap will be "on the order of [the] Sava River crossing
in 1995 in Bosnia and Herzovogina (ENR 1/08/96, p. tk),"
says Holt. It would also reopen a direct route from Tikrit
Hussein's family getaway in Tikrit
While Nicholson is briefing Martin
on the equipment and preparation work needed to repair the
bridge, Palumbo checks out the restrooms in one of the compound's
smaller buildings, at the base of the bridge. "Nine toilets,
nine bidetsall gold plated. And that's not the main
building. It's obscene," he says later as the recon team
is airborne again, headed north to check out the dam.
Unlike the dry and barren Shia
country in southern Iraq, where Saddam Hussein clenched the
irrigation valve with an iron fist, the Sunni region north
of Baghdad to Tikrit is lush, arable land. Here water drawn
from the Tigris and Euphrates flows freely through irrigation
canals that nourish row crops, palm plantations, grain and
pastureland. The view from a helicopter flying at 120 knots
50 to 100 ft off the ground suggests that the humanitarian
grain and rice shipments headed to Iraq will not be needed
in this part of the country. One soldier observes that "lack
of rain causes drought. Bad government causes famine."
The helicopters fly past Mosul
and approach the dam. Behind the face, azure water looks cool
and pristine, a far cry from the brown and green murk down-river
toward Baghdad. Water rips through the spillway, churning
up white foam waves. The pilots and gunners notice a cluster
of people milling around chairs arranged on one wing of the
dam, apparently gathered for some sort of outdoor gathering.
At the other end are about a dozen men in green uniforms,
black boots and red berets. They are carrying AK-47 rifles.
As soon as he sees the Blackhawks, one sprints to an outbuilding.
Nobody in the helicopter recognizes the uniforms. The helicopters
hover back and forth across the dam face like dragonflies.
"What do you want to do, Col.
Martin?" asks Palumbo through the headset.
"Don't land if you don't feel
the site is safe," Martin says. "But it's your call,
Palumbo pauses for a few seconds.
"They've had ample opportunity to shoot at us if they
want to," he says, as if to himself. The people in the
chopper wave. The people on the ground wave back. Palumbo
makes a tactical decision. He instructs the other chopper
to stay aloft and be ready to provide covering fire. Then
he sets the Blackhawk down on a bench above the wingwall near
the spillway, opposite the more heavily guarded side housing
the turbines and control room. He keeps the rotors turning.
Martin takes dam briefing from engineer Mahmoud
Martin and one of the gunners head
for a control shack and are quickly in a conversation with
Jassam Hammad Saleh Mahmoud, an engineer in charge of operations
on the irrigation side. He apologizes for his English. He
says he has not spoken that language since 1983, during the
dam's construction. He explains that Turkey has experienced
a winter of heavy precipitation, after three dry years. The
spillway has been closed during that time. Last month, rain
and snowmelt began filling the reservoir. There are about
four meters of freeboard to the dam's crest. In a typical
year, Mahmoud says, the spring spillway flow rate is about
750 cu m per sec. At present, he is dumping 2,500 cu m through
the spillway and turbines.
The other chopper has discharged
Holt, who quickly moves the conversation to the essential
question: the dam's structural integrity. From 1999-2002,
Holt was stationed in the Corps of Engineers' Seattle office.
The previous night he contacted some of his comrades there
for a quick review of significant questions to ask for an
evaluation of the dam's structural integrity and hydroelectric
performance. In recent years the Corps has touted developed
an approach that lets field observers "reach back"
to the U.S. for technical expertise. Holt is putting that
theory into practice. He quickly works through a checklist
of trouble signs, until he is confident that the dam is not
in danger of failure. Then he compiles as much intelligence
as he can in an hour. Both choppers are in the air, for security.
Each is carrying about 90 minutes worth of fuel.
Col Holt inspects grout gallery in dam's core.
Mahmoud explains that the dam leaks,
but is structurally sound. This is confirmed, he says, by
data from a full array of piezometers--mostly downstream,
but some above the dam. The foundation rests on three strata
of gypsum. There is some seepage beneath. But the dam engineers,
a German-Italian joint venture called GIMOD, designed an aggressive
grouting program to deal with this. Concrete lined grout galleries,
each some 1,600 m in length, extend from each wing to the
center, in the dam's core. Mounted lines on the gallery walls
deliver bentonite, cement, water and air to make grout for
portable drilling machines. Four crews are working in one
gallery. There are 12 machines in all. Another wall-mounted
line extracts water. Grout injection wells are evenly spaced
approximately 10-20 m apart. The grout curtain extends to
a depth of 90 m. The dam consumes some 50 mt of grout a day,
under normal maintenance. Voids throw the program into emergency
status and have consumed up to a quarter million tons of grout
a day. Mahmoud believes better grout would reduce the consumption.
Quality grout is one more material that has been hard to come
by, either because of post-Desert Storm sanctions or because
of the regime's other priorities.
are accused of looting in Mosul, but dam operators say
PDK militia saved the powerplant and dam nearby
When the discussions turn to the
power side of the dam, Mahmoud offers to take the group along
the road across the dam crest to the powerplant. Along the
way, they pass the soldiers, who are friendly, yet disciplined.
They learn that the militiamen are members of the PDK, the
Democratic Party of Kurdistan. Their leader is Massoud Barzani.
The other organized group of Kurds in northern Iraq is the
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani.
U.S. Special Forces reportedly have been working with both
rival groups. These uneasy alliances became even more important
about two months ago when Turkey turned down U.S. plans to
launch the Fourth Infantry Division from Turkey.
Mosul's ethnic split is about 70%
Arab and 30% Kurd. Looting in Mosul after Baghdad fell was
blamed on the Kurds. Not at the dam, however. "These
soldiers came about 10 days ago and protected the powerplant
from looters," says Ra'ad Benhan Hanna, an electrical
technician at the plant. He goes on to say that the dam workers178
on the power side and 300 or so on the irrigation and flood
control sidehave been working without pay for the past
month, since the war started.
and Holt discuss operations with Mosul Dam power staff
Even more amazing is that, except
for a two-week shutdown during the war, they've been running
the plant manually, for a long time. The plant has instrumentation,
but the computerized controls are shot. The operators open
or close the spillways and "tune" electrical output
by reading the dialsdoing what PCs do in most modern
power plants. The plant has a downstream pumped storage module
that makes operation even more complicated. Yet the powerplant
operators show Holt electricity production data curves that
attest to their competence. "Optimal output is 50 cycles
and these guys say they're hitting 49.9999," he says.
The mainframe computers came from
ASEA, now ABB, when the plant was constructed from 1981-86,
says the computer technician, who gives his name only as Amman.
Spare parts are an elusive dream. "We haven't been able
to get Control Data disc drives for years," he says.
He offers three solutions, along with cost estimates. The
fast fix is a moving head disc and computer cards for the
existing, if antiquated, mainframe. The cost: $100,000 to
$200,000. The medium solution is to hire a Baghdad-based firm,
Electrical System Co., to replace the controls with a PC-based
system and write software in C language. Total expense: around
$400,000, he says. The slow solution, or long-term fix, would
outfit the plant with ABB's "Spider" system controls,
for $2 million to $3 million, he says.
The operators tell Martin and Holt
that they are producing 630 Mw from four 200-Mw turbines--more
power for Mosul than they did before the war. Military intelligence
confirms this, putting the production level at about 80% of
demand. But they also say they are unable to push power south
to Baghdad for the national grid, because of breaks in the
400-kv transmission lines. One line is between Baji and West
Baghdad. The other is between Balad and Baghdad, they say.
They also provide a name and contact at the North Region Control
Center to provide more information on conditions in Iraq's
northern power transmission grid.
left, and gunner, sidearms drawn, check hidden Iraqi helicopter
Intelligence in hand, the Americans
bid farewell to the dam engineers and operators and the PDK
soldiers and board the Blackhawks to head back. On the way
home, Palumbo and his crew set down in a dry wash a few kilometers
above Mosul to check out something they noticed earlier on
the way to the dam. There are about 15 Russian-made helicopters,
rotors off, stashed under camouflage netting. Some are small
recon helicoptersMI 2 Hoplites. There are also some
MI 8 armored troop carriers. Earlier in the day they spotted
even larger Hughes 500 birds. They record the coordinates
for the evening's commanders' conference call. Perhaps the
choppers will be retrieved for reconditioning and returned
to the rebuilt Iraqi military. Or perhaps they'll be parceled
out to other agencies in the new government. Hundred of questions
like this are popping up every day, it seems.
They stop at a 101st
Airborne field depot to take on fuel for the ride home. Later,
Martin and Holt discover that another recon team had visited
the dam the previous day. That team had collected much of
the same data on the grouting and the dam's structural underpinning,
but the information on powerplant operations and breaks in
the transmission line is new information. They seem unperturbed.
Martin tells his officers at the evening briefing: "The
real hard work is just beginning. What's coming up will be
harder, more challenging, more complicated than anything we've
seen so far. We're going to be working our butts off for as
long as we're here."
(PHOTOS BY ANDREW G. WRIGHT FOR ENR)
ENR Managing Senior Editor Andrew
G. Wright is in Baghdad
with the Engineer Brigade of U.S. Army's Third Infantry