IS burn oil wells as fighters flee Iraqi town

IS burn oil wells as fighters flee Iraqi town
Black smoke is still billowing above the Iraqi town of Qayyarah - south of Mosul - after IS militants lit up scores of oil wells before fleeing advancing Iraqi forces.
3 min read
30 August, 2016
IS set oil wells alight in an attempt to leave behind a ruined prize [AFP]
Retreating Islamic State fighters have set fire to scores of oil wells in the Iraqi town of Qayyarah, south of Mosul, leaving thousands of residents in danger.

The northern town was recaptured by Iraqi forces on Thursday, but after IS militants lit up the oil well, Qayyarah has been blanketed by smoke for days.

Authorities are desperately trying to put out the infernos left by militants, which is putting the health of residents at risk.

Unlike previous ground assaults against IS in Iraq that left entire cities and villages emptied of civilians, thousands of civilians remained in Qayyarah as militants inside quickly folded up and fled.

Commanders believe this is a sign of weakening morale in the IS ranks and damaged supply lines.

But the situation for the some 9,000 civilians still in the town is precarious.

Black smoke

The battle left the town without electricity and little running water, and the large international aid groups who normally help the displaced say they cannot deliver aid to people so close to frontline fighting.

Residents have also been left to deal with the oil well fires started by IS fighters, which now threaten homes and town's residents.

The militants set fire to the oil wells initially to try to thwart airstrikes, but then as they realised they were losing ground began to set as many well alight as possible in an act of scorched earth, residents said.

[Click to enlarge]

Several houses have reportedly caught fire as burning oil began to flow down streets.

"The children and the elderly, they are the ones suffering the most," said local resident Ahmed Salih.

He said that IS initially began burning oil as a defensive measure three months ago but that respiratory problems among residents have become commonplace.

Iraq's ministry of oil said it extinguished fires at four burning oil wells and it working on putting out the rest of the fire. The ministry did not say how many oil wells remain on fire.

Earlier this month, local officials had warned that IS might burn oil wells to slow Iraqi army advances on its stronghold of Mosul.

"[IS] has laid an oil pipe that flows into the Tigris near the Qayyarah refinery, south of Mosul, in an attempt to pump oil into the river to burn the floating bridge constructed by the Iraqi army in mid-July," said a statement by the Nineveh Governorate Council.

"The group is attempting to pump large quantities of oil into the river and set it on fire," the group claimed.

The army constructed a floating bridge on the Tigris south of Mosul to facilitate the transport of troops, vehicles and equipment from its base in Makhmour during the operation to retake the IS-held city.

Mosul is the last major Iraqi city under IS control after the group lost Fallujah in June.

However, experts warn the group might resort to a "scorched earth" policy to retain its position in the northern Iraqi city.  

The residents of Qayyarah know that this hopeless strategy might have already started.