Oil Fires Cast Black Cloud Over Iraqi Town Retaken from ISIS

تم نشره في Tue 30 August / Aug 2016. 12:00 AM
  • An Iraqi security forces personnel stands by burning oil wells, set ablaze by ISIS militants before fleeing the oil-producing region of Qayyara, Iraq, August 29, 2016. – (REUTERS)

QAYYARA, Iraq — It gets darker earlier these days in the northern Iraqi town of Qayyara, which ISIS militants abandoned about a week ago after setting fire to many of the region's oil wells.

Smoke billowing into the sky during a Reuters visit on Monday blotted out the sun in central districts hours before nightfall, producing an apocalyptic scene in this desert settlement which lacks electricity amid 49 degree Celsius (120°F) temperatures.

The Iraqi military's recapture of Qayyara, along with a nearby airbase in July, is the latest and most significant advance in a US-backed push to Mosul, the largest city under ISIS control anywhere in its self-proclaimed caliphate.

Baghdad wants to retake Mosul before the end of the year, which it says will effectively end the militants' presence in Iraq more than two years after they seized a third of its territory. Some officials from countries in the US-led coalition supporting the Iraqi forces have said that timeline may be too ambitious.

Yet the loss of Qayyara certainly dealt a blow to ISIS, which had extracted oil from some 60 wells and sold it to help finance its activities.

ISIS used to ship at least 50 tanker truckloads a day from Qayyara and nearby Najma oilfields to neighbouring Syria. A sign remains on the main road announcing prices of crude in places like the Syrian city of Aleppo, 550 km (340 miles) west of Qayyara.

Rudimentary refineries once used to refine oil for local consumption have been abandoned on the side of the road leading east out of the town.

The smell of petrol now overwhelms the area, wind carrying the smoke from well fires into the town center. More than a few minutes in the area leaves one's throat burning, and children walking the streets have quickly developed coughs.

Abdel Aziz Saleh, a 25-year-old Qayyara resident, said he wants Baghdad to put out the fires as soon as possible.

"They are suffocating us," he said. "The birds, the animals are black, the people are black. Gas rains down on us at night. Now the gas has reached the residential areas."

He and other residents said oil had spilled into the nearby Tigris River - assertions denied by the oil ministry, which said the oil spills had been contained by trenches. While several bodies were seen floating in the river on Monday, Reuters could not confirm it had been contaminated with oil.

Iraq says it has put out fires at four oil wells in the Qayyara region, but Reuters could not locate any such efforts at the wells closest to residential areas.

Around a dozen separate plumes of smoke were still distinguishable across the horizon as night fell, when a convoy of firetrucks approached the town.

It was not immediately clear how long it will take to extinguish the flames. When Iraq's military torched hundreds of Kuwaiti oil wells in 1991 ahead of advancing US-led forces, most fires burned for around two months but some wells were not capped for almost a year.

The oil ministry said it does not expect to resume production from the Qayyara region before Mosul's recapture. The two main fields, Qayyara and Najma, used to produce 30,000 barrels per day of heavy crude before the takeover by ISIS.