Italy to send troops near Iraq combat zone to protect dam workers

ROME (Reuters) - Italy will deploy 450 troops near the front line with Islamic State militants in Iraq to protect workers carrying out repairs to the Mosul hydro-electric dam, the country’s biggest, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said on Wednesday.

Peshmerga fighters stand guard at Mosul Dam in northern Iraq August 21, 2014. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Renzi, who has refused overtures from the French and Americans to join in air strikes on Islamic State (IS) in Syria, said the dam project was a concrete way to safeguard civilians and oppose Islamist militants.

“Everybody was saying ‘let’s bomb here’, ‘let’s bomb there’, ‘bomb, bomb’. I said, ‘Let’s do something useful’,” Renzi said in an interview with Italian radio.

An Italian company, the Trevi Group, is finalizing a contract with the Iraqi government to make badly needed upgrades to the 3.6-km (2.2-mile) long Mosul dam, which has suffered from structural flaws since it was built in the 1980s.

Work will start almost immediately to “safeguard the stability” of a dam that “is seriously damaged,” Trevi said in a statement. The job should take about 18 months.

“The presence of the Italian contingent alongside the Iraqi army and international forces is fundamentally important for the security of the project,” the statement said.

Islamist insurgents seized the dam in August 2014, sparking fears that they might blow it up and unleash a wall of water on Mosul and Baghdad that could kill thousands of civilians. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters recaptured the dam two weeks later with the help of U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

“The dam must be repaired because it could cause a civilian disaster,” Renzi said. “We will fix the dam and the workers will be defended by our troops, who are already present in Iraq.”

While Italy already has about 750 soldiers in Iraq, most are involved in training Iraqi soldiers and police in the Kurdish regional capital Erbil and Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.

Deployed just up the road from Islamic State-held Mosul, Italian forces will be in a potential combat zone.

The mission will raise Italy’s total Iraqi contingent to between 1,200-1,300, a Defence Ministry spokesman said.

Flanking Italy’s troops will be soldiers from the U.S.-led coalition against IS, including Kurdish Peshmerga, but Italy will be in command of the mission, the spokesman said.

“It’s a new and important mission in a very hot area because the city is considered the capital of the (IS-declared) caliphate in Iraq, which is a crossroads for links to Syria,” Defence Minister Roberta Pinotti said.

The dam is both a vital source of water and energy for Mosul, a city that had more than 2 million residents before it was captured by Islamic State insurgents in June last year.

Trevi’s work to fortify the dam is worth more than $2 billion, Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera reported. The company did not confirm the potential value of the contract.

Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Mark Heinrich