ISIL’s burning oil wells the legacy of dark rule near Mosul

In Qayyarah, a town on the Tigris crucial to the recapture of Mosul, residents celebrate being freed from ISIL but now suffer the health effects from the extremist's scorched earth policy, Florian Neuhof, Foreign Correspondent, reports.
A burning oil well darkens the skies above Qayyarah and shrouds entire neighbourhoods in black smog. Florian Neuhof for The National
A burning oil well darkens the skies above Qayyarah and shrouds entire neighbourhoods in black smog. Florian Neuhof for The National

Qayyarah, Iraq // Plumes of black smoke mark out Qayyarah against the horizon, as oil wells on the town’s outskirts spit flames into the sky. ISIL set fire to the wells, a rich source of revenue for the terror group, before retreating.

The militants took control of Qayyarah, a nondescript town on the banks of the Tigris, more than two years ago. They were expelled by Iraqi forces in less than two days when a lightning advance up the river reached the town on August 24.

Spearheaded by elite counterterrorism forces, the attack was fierce, and Qayyarah displays the signs all too familiar in Iraqi towns liberated from ISIL’s yoke: buildings collapsed by air strikes or with gaping holes in their facades, smashed shops lining the main road. Mortar rounds have torn up the roads, and pieces of a blown-up bulldozer are strewn about. The foul stench of death lingers over the rubble.

“You can go to some parts of Qayyarah and you will see many bodies,” says Ali Mohammed Abdullah, a retired government official who, like most of the inhabitants, remained in the town during the fighting.

Qayyarah was spared worse destruction as ISIL was not able to mount a sustained defence, but its residents still suffer from the terror group’s poisonous legacy. The wells dotted around the town continue to spew a toxic smog, shrouding the town in an unhealthy haze that thickens into a dark inferno near the fires. Nobody knows when they will be put out. With ISIL still close, it is difficult to send in specialist engineers to stop the oil feeding the flames.

“It’s very dangerous. We are choking from it, especially the children, who are suffering from asthma and allergic reactions,” says Ahmed, a 42 year-old English teacher who has not taught classes since ISIL took over the town.

The insurgents remain only five kilometres away, and periodically rain down rockets and mortar rounds on Qayyarah. Two people have died and four were wounded during the last attack, says Ahmed.

Qayyarah has an important role in the campaign to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city that fell to ISIL in June 2014. From here, the plains of Nineveh province roll uninterrupted along the Tigris for about 60 kilometres until Mosul, with only small settlements in the way. A nearby airstrip will become an important logistics hub for the upcoming battle, and already forces are massing near the town for the next step of the operation.

Iraqi security forces will continue to towards Mosul on the south bank of the Tigris, while the Kurds will chip away at ISIL north of the river.

Gains also have to be made near the Syrian border to the west to encircle the city. The battle for Mosul itself will commence before the year is out, and additional units are being readied for the fight, according to Maj Gen Najim Al Jabouri, the head of the Nineveh Operations Room who is in charge of the campaign.

“Some brigades have almost finished their training in Baghdad, and then they will come here. The training will be complete very soon,” Gen Al Jabouri says at his headquarters in the nearby town of Makhmour.

Another battle is already being fought in Qayyarah, and it is one that will determine Iraq’s future as much as the outcome of the war against ISIL.

Due to the speed of its liberation, the bulk of the town’s residents stayed put during the fighting, and did not swell the ranks of the more than three million Iraqis displaced by the conflict.

It is a chance to prove to the town’s Sunni population that they have nothing to fear from the army. Poor treatment of Iraq’s Sunnis by the Shiite-dominated government and security forces was a crucial factor in the fall of Mosul, where many people sympathised with the Sunni extremists after years of sectarian discrimination.

Since then, the torture and killings of civilians by government forces and especially allied Shiite militias in areas retaken from ISIL has done much to raise anxieties among Sunnis, who predominate in Nineveh province and much of western Iraq.

Gen Al Jabouri says he is determined to restore the reputation of the army and prevent the rise of Sunni extremism in future.

“Before [the fall of Mosul], the relationship between security forces and population was very bad. Now we must all do our best to build bridges, because security depends on it. If the population gives a safe haven to Al Qaeda or ISIS, the security forces cannot do anything,” he says.

A secular Sunni, the commander served as the mayor of the northern town of Tel Afar during the bloody years of sectarian conflict after the Second Gulf War, working with the Americans and the government to fight Al Qaeda’s extremism before fleeing to the US in fear for his life.

Under his charge, the army has been working hard to allay the fears of the local population. Qayyarah’s residents look at ease with the heavy army presence, and the military is channelling food and other supplies to the front-line town.

“Up to now, the relationship between the security forces and the people south of Mosul has been very good. I hope that will continue, and we will try and continue to ... change the image of the security forces in the minds of people,” says Gen Al Jabouri.

It is a good time for the government mend fences with the Sunni population, which is has been tormented by the extremists who promised to stand up for them.

Qayyarah’s residents are elated that ISIL’s brutal reign has ended, and look back in disgust at the rigid laws laid down by the terror group and the cruel punishment meted out to those who did not comply or were deemed an enemy of their self-proclaimed caliphate.

“I remember the first thing about Daesh. I was standing in front of my house, and Daesh came and looked at my trousers. They said they were too long, and took scissors and cut my trousers,” says Ahmed. Men whose beards were not deemed long enough were taken in by ISIL’s morality police, the Hisbah, and lashed, he adds.

Ali Saleh, a welder, fled Qayyarah to Kurdish-held Kirkuk after ISIL murdered his brother for being a policeman.

“Daesh killed everyone, you can’t live with them,” says Mr Saleh. He returned to his hometown after the liberation to rejoin his family. The welder and the teacher are part of a group of men the army has assembled on the main road to check their identities. Even days after the liberation of the town, the search for ISIL members continues.

The hatred of ISIL means the security forces do not have to be squeamish when dealing with local collaborators. Those suspected of becoming part of the ISIL regime in Qayyarah have been taken into custody, and there is little sympathy for them from residents. Asked what should happen to those that sided with the insurgents, Ahmed’s answer is immediate: “Kill them.”

Published: September 11, 2016 04:00 AM


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