An employee works at strengthening the Mosul Dam on the Tigris River, around 50 kilometres north of the Iraqi city of Mosul, on February 1, 2016.
The United States is monitoring Iraq's largest dam for signs of further deterioration that could point to an impending catastrophic collapse, US army officers said on January 28, 2016.
The Islamic State (IS) jihadist group seized the Mosul Dam briefly in 2014, leading to a lapse in maintenance that weakened an already flawed structure, and Baghdad is seeking a company to make repairs. / AFP / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
Mosul dam at 'risk of catastrophic failure'
01:35 - Source: CNN

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Iraq's Prime Minister plays down the threat of a potential breach at the country's largest dam

ISIS militants briefly seized the dam in August 2014

CNN  — 

Iraq’s Mosul Dam is facing a “serious and unprecedented risk of catastrophic failure with little warning,” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad warned on Sunday.

At the same time, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi played down the threat of a potential breach at the country’s largest dam.

ISIS militants seized the dam in August 2014. U.S. airstrikes helped Kurdish and Iraqi forces take control of it back that same month.

“A catastrophic breach of Iraq’s Mosul Dam would result in severe loss of life, mass population displacement, and destruction of the majority of the infrastructure within the path of the projected floodwave,” the U.S. government said in a fact sheet.

It stressed it had “no specific information that indicates when a breach might occur,” but said it was providing recommendations now “out of an abundance of caution.”

The 3.2-kilometer-long Mosul Dam holds back as much as 12.5 million cubic meters of water, according to Engineering News-Record, a construction industry website.

A wall of water tens of feet tall

If the structure were to give way, it would unleash a wall of water tens of feet tall that would race down the Tigris River toward Mosul and its inhabitants. It would also bring flooding to major cities farther downstream, including Baghdad.

According to the United States, approximately 500,000 to 1.47 million people live along the Tigris in areas at highest risk and would probably not survive the impact of the projected flood wave unless they evacuated.

“Proper preparation could save many lives,” the embassy said.

Painting an alternative picture, Abadi discussed the “unlikely” scenario of the dam bursting in a statement from his office.

A rehabilitation operation, funded by the World Bank and to be done by a “premium international engineering company,” is set to begin shortly, the Prime Minister said, stressing that regular and ongoing maintenance is already underway.

In the event of the dam bursting, however, Abadi advised that people living near the Tigris River move to higher ground, at least 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) away from the river.

The statement also sought to assure Iraqis that the government would issue emergency alarms in the event of a breach and would provide for any displaced people.

CNN’s Yousif Basil, Elise Labott and Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.