Iraqis suffocated by poisonous fires left in IS wake

Iraqis suffocated by poisonous fires left in IS wake
Thousands are struggling to breathe and left with black soot on their faces after Islamic State militants retreating from the area set alight 19 oil wells in Qayarrah.
2 min read
04 November, 2016
Oil wells set ablaze by retreating IS militants have created a toxic cloud [Anadolu]
A toxic smoke cloud over Iraq covering an area bigger than Greater London is suffocating residents fleeing the fight against the Islamic State group.

Militants chased out of towns on the road to Mosul have set fire to 19 oil wells in Qayarrah, poisoning the air in their wake.

Read also: Islamic State: Scorching Iraq's earth

The smoke, which blocks out the sun and turns children's faces grey with oily soot, has made breathing difficult for thousands of people, Oxfam has said.

"Even after IS has left, many of the people living amid its trail of destruction have told us that life remains unbearable," Andres Gonzalez, the charity's country director in Iraq, said.

"Burning oil wells continue to spew out toxic fumes that burn people's throats and turn their communities into a smoke-filled hell. The Iraqi government needs to tell citizens what is being done to put out these fires and to avoid a potentially bigger crisis in Mosul."

Thousands of families have been displaced in northern Iraq as government troops backed by a US-led coalition advance on Mosul, IS' last stronghold in the country.

But retreating militants' attacks on oil fields, which have turned the sky black, have left residents struggling to breathe.

One doctor in Haiji Ali, close to Qayarrah, said many of her patients were suffering from bronchitis and that there was a shortage of medicine.

A 67-year-old man told Oxfam staff that the burning oil wells were making residents sick. "We need someone to put out the fires. They have been burning for several months now," he said.

Even sheep, the livelihood of Iraq's farmers, have turned black with soot.

Oxfam is calling on the Iraqi government to prioritise extinguishing the fires.

It also warned of a potentially worsening crisis with six oil fields surrounding Mosul still under IS control.

A sulphur mine in Mishraq set ablaze last month has also exacerbated the environmental toll of the battle, with toxic fumes spreading over dozens of kilometres.