Roiling flames and thick, billowing clouds of black smoke from burning oil wells choke the air as Iraqis stand on rooftops staring at the devastation has ISIS wrought on their town.
That’s the scene in a new video released by Oxfam, an international aid organization that’s working to provide humanitarian aid to the thousands displaced by the fight to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city and ISIS’s last remaining stronghold in the country.
As Iraqi forces pushed northward toward Mosul, clearing small towns along the way, fleeing ISIS fighters set 19 oil wells on fire in the area of Qayarrah, turning the area into what Andres Gonzalez, Oxfam’s country director in Iraq, described as a “smoke-filled hell.”
The United Nations reports that 1,000 people have sought health assistance as a result of the toxic fumes in the Qayarrah area as of October 26. Oxfam says it is likely that many more people are affected but have not sought medical help because a lack of health facilities and restrictions on their movements. In many of the communities where Oxfam is working and visiting, people say the smoke is their top concern.
As my colleagues Yochi Dreazen and Brad Plumer have written about at length, the use of the environment as a weapon of war has a long and tragic history in Iraq. Back in 1991, Saddam Hussein’s forces set nearly 600 oil fields in Kuwait ablaze as it retreated from US and coalition forces. They also uncapped or damaged more than 130 wells, allowing crude oil to flow freely across the land, killing large numbers of livestock and other animals.
ISIS has continued this grand tradition of causing staggering environmental devastation as it retreats from advancing forces. As Dreazen and Plumer report, on October 22, ISIS fighters set fire to the Mishraq Sulfate Factory, about 19 miles south of Mosul. “The resulting sulfur dioxide pollution, which can cause severe respiratory problems and irritate the eyes and throat, has killed two people and sent at least 1,000 others to hospitals,” they write.
As Iraqi and Kurdish troops backed by the US-led coalition push further into Mosul in an effort to drive ISIS out of the city they’ve held for more than two years, we’re likely to see a lot more of this. For all its lofty claims of wanting to create a glorious caliphate where Muslims can live in peace and security, every day it proves that all it really wants to create is a hellscape of fire and ash in its wake.