BAGHDAD — Iraqi security officials said Wednesday that fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant were advancing on the Haditha Dam, the second-largest in Iraq, raising the possibility of catastrophic damage and flooding.
Worries about the dam came as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized his political rivals but did not reject entreaties by Western leaders, including a personal visit by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, to help defuse the crisis by forming a new government with more equitable power-sharing among competing groups.
The ISIL militants advancing on the dam on the Euphrates River, about 120 miles northwest of Baghdad, were coming from the north, the northeast and the northwest. The fighters had already reached Burwana, on the eastern side of Haditha, and government forces were fighting to halt their advance, security officials said.
Alarmed that the insurgents would reach the dam, army officers told employees to stay inside and to be prepared to open the dam’s floodgates if ordered to do so, one employee said.
“This will lead to the flooding of the town and villages and will harm you also,’’ the employee said he told the army officer.
According to the employee, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, the officer replied: “Yes, I know, it will be against us and our enemies.’’
This would not be the first time that the Iraqi government and ISIL have engaged in dam warfare. In April, when ISIL fighters seized the Fallujah dam, they opened it, flooding fields of crops all the way south to the city of Najaf. The water at one point washed east as well, almost reaching Abu Ghraib, just west of Baghdad.
The opening of the floodgates also starved areas downstream in the provinces of Najaf and Diwaniya of water needed for crops. The floodgates were closed after several weeks.
The Haditha Dam is second in size in the country to the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, about 45 miles north of Mosul, the Nineveh provincial capital that ISIL militants seized two weeks ago.
In Baghdad, al-Maliki, a Shiite, again said he would not form a caretaker government and blamed other political groups for not cooperating with him. But he vowed to honor the constitutional requirements of forming a government and he exhorted Iraq’s minority Sunnis and Kurds to come together in the crisis for the common good.
Al-Maliki’s rejection came a day after Kerry made an emergency visit to Iraq as part of efforts to persuade the country’s political leaders to overcome their differences.
In a televised address, al-Maliki criticized “other parties,’’ a reference to Sunnis and Kurds, for not doing more to support the government, and said the idea of a caretaker government, which could be formed without his participation, was not acceptable.
“Despite what we are suffering through, we haven’t heard from our political partners with any support,’’ al-Maliki said. “They are not partners in facing the crisis but they are partners in spending the wealth of Iraq.’’
He also severely criticized remarks that the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, made in a meeting Tuesday with Kerry. The Kurdish leader had suggested that gains by the ISIL militants had changed the political landscape.
“Whoever is talking about Iraq before Nineveh, and Iraq after Nineveh, it’s against the constitution, it’s a way of taking advantage of what’s happening in the country, of using terrorist attacks to get political benefits,’’ al-Maliki said.
Kerry, who was in Brussels on Wednesday at a NATO conference, had no immediate reaction to al-Maliki’s remarks about Barzani. But Kerry said the Iraqi prime minister was “committed to moving forward with his constitutional commitments’’ and had “called on all Iraqis to put aside their differences to unite in their efforts against terrorism.’’
Kerry also told reporters he had been asked by President Barack Obama to travel to Saudi Arabia on Friday to confer with King Abdullah on the best ways to counter the ISIL advance.
After ISIL militants seized Mosul on June 10, Kurdish militia forces took control of the divided city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds regard as theirs.
The U.N. envoy in Iraq, Nikolay E. Mladenov, said Wednesday that ISIL would have to be confronted militarily but that no peace could come without the Maliki government’s commitment to create a new inclusive government.
“You obviously need a security operation to deal with the security threat,’’ Mladenov said at a news briefing at the United Nations by video teleconference from Baghdad. “The situation is grave. But Iraq can be saved. The country can be brought together if political leaders understand this is no longer business as usual.’’
Mladenov urged the al-Maliki government to stick to what he called the “constitutional timetable,’’ referring to a requirement that the formation of a new government from the April elections start by July.
He declined to comment specifically on whether al-Maliki, a polarizing figure who has been the prime minister since 2007, should step aside, saying only that Iraqis could determine their next leaders.
“What I do know however is that the next government needs to include representatives of all of Iraq’s communities,’’ Mladenov said.
While he asserted that Baghdad was relatively secure from a Sunni militant assault, Mladenov expressed worry about a possible sectarian war if ISIL forces attacked Samarra, a city 70 miles north of Baghdad that is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to some of Shiite Islam’s most sacred sites.
Mladenov said at least 1,300 people had been killed in the country since June 5, and that the ranks of the displaced had grown to 1 million, about half of them chased from their homes by the ISIL seizure of Mosul.
Asked about unconfirmed reports that Syria, which is also battling ISIL militants, had bombed Sunni militant targets in western Iraq, Mladenov said he could only confirm that it was not an Iraqi jet that carried out the strikes.
The U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, said in a statement that U.S. officials were aware of the reported Syrian airstrikes and had “no reason to dispute these reports,’’ but referred any further inquiries to the Iraqi government.
Officials in al-Maliki’s office have denied the reports. Syria’s official media have not commented on them.