Retreating Isis fighters leave dark pall in their wake in Iraq
Islamist militants burn towns and oil wells as they flee ahead of the battle for Mosul
Qayyarah, a town of 15,000 people, has been engulfed in smoke from burning oil wells lit by retreating Isis fighters. Photograph: Ruaidhri Giblin
A burning oil well lit by retreating Isis fighters, lies within metres of the liberated town of Qayyarah. The fires have been burning since August. Photograph: Ruaidhri Giblin
Plumes of thick black smoke, which can be seen for miles across the horizon, get deeper and darker the closer one gets to Qayyarah.
Islamic State is retreating, burning the earth behind it, two years after it captured a third of Iraq’s territory and shocked the world with its brutality.
A military offensive to push the terror group out of Mosul, the largest city it holds, is expected to begin within weeks. Crucial to the offensive is Qayyarah, 60km south of Mosul, on the banks of the river Tigris.
As Iraqi forces stormed the area on August 21st, Islamic State fighters burned several oil wells, some within metres of the town.
Toxic smoke has billowed out ever since, poisoning the town’s inhabitants and polluting the skyline for miles.
Fighting firesIraqi firefighters have been unable to stop all of the fires. Contractors from Baghdad will be required to extinguish the flames, according to officials, but contractors are unwilling to work where Islamic State, also known as Isis, is operating less than 10km away.
A dim pall hangs over Qayyarah, symbolising the destruction created in the wake of an Islamic State defeat.
The town is accessed by a makeshift bridge the group is constantly trying to destroy by floating explosive barrels downstream.
Many inhabitants remained in the town during the two-day fight and some participated in an uprising.
Residents say Islamic State had about 70 supporters in the town of 15,000. They referred to the group as “criminals” and “psychopaths” who hoarded goods and enforced strict moral codes.
In March, Islamic State gathered all the satellite dishes in Qayyarah and burned them, after a decree had gone out to destroy all television receivers in the town.
One resident, a clean-shaven man, named Naif Zahal, said Islamic State’s morality police would wander the town with scissors ensuring men’s beards and trousers were a certain length.
He held a fist to the bottom of his chin indicating the length his beard used to have to be.
Zahal and other residents said those who had supported the group would not be welcomed back into Qayyarah.
The Iraqi government is keen to rebuild and to avoid the mistakes of the past that helped to facilitate the rise of Islamic State.
The alienation of minority Sunni Muslims from majority Shia rule under former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was such that, by the summer of 2014, many Sunnis felt more secure under Isis rule than that of the Baghdad government.
Future unity depends on rebuilding trust between the two Islamic communities.
Qayyarah’s new chief of police, Mukadam Fathi Khadir, speaking to The Irish Times two weeks after moving into the town and one day after raising the Iraqi flag, said the people of Qayyarah had warmly welcomed the Iraqi forces.
At a meeting at his headquarters with a group of local representatives, Khadir had asked the elders to find out how many food coupons – an Iraqi social welfare stamp – were being used by people in their areas so that parcels could be arranged.
He had asked them to provide the security forces with information about Islamic State, including the whereabouts of former Isis houses.
The response had been positive, with local leaders displaying a “willingness to co-operate with us”.
Water and powerThe lieutenant colonel, whose special team of police follow the Iraqi forces into recently-liberated areas to rebuild local government, said the first two priorities were to restore water and electricity services. “The third one is having a hospital.”
Qayyarah’s hospital was destroyed by the fires set by Islamic State fighters as they departed and will take an estimated eight months to repair. Qayyarah desperately needed medicine and aid, Khadir said.
Schools in the town will reopen from early this month, government offices are in the process of being set up and courts are to be established soon.
Khadir expressed the hope that the security situation would improve and Islamic State and al-Qaeda, whose networks previously operated in the area, would never return.
“Once the security situation is good, the economy will come back to life and maybe foreign companies are going to come, maybe NGOs are going to come to work with the people.”