Iraq harvests go up in smoke, but who lit the fires?

The source of the fires are difficult to determine. (Shutterstock)
Updated 07 June 2019

Iraq harvests go up in smoke, but who lit the fires?

  • Farmers in the country’s breadbasket had been hoping for bumper wheat and barley harvests

KIRKUK, Iraq: Resurgent jihadists, ethnic land disputes or regular field burning? Iraq’s northern farmlands are on fire, but the area’s complex patchwork of grievances has made it hard to identify the culprits.
Farmers in the country’s breadbasket had been hoping for bumper wheat and barley harvests in May and June, following heavy winter rains.
Instead, many saw their hopes turned to ash.
The Iraqi fire service says that in a single month, 236 fires destroyed 5,183 hectares (more than 12,800 acres) of farmland — the equivalent of more than 7,000 football pitches.
The blazes hit four northern provinces, all of which had been at least partly controlled by the Daesh group and have remained prey to the jihadists’ sleeper cells.
IS has continued to carry out hit-and-run attacks despite losing its Iraqi foothold in late 2017 and its last Syrian enclave just a few months ago.
Indeed, the group was quick to claim responsibility for the fires.
In its weekly online magazine Al-Naba, it said its fighters had destroyed “hundreds of hectares” owned by “apostates” in the provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala.
Officials in those areas told AFP they believed IS was responsible for at least some of the fires.
“IS fighters set fire to the fields because the farmers refused to pay them zakat,” said one police officer in Kirkuk, referring to a tax imposed under Islamic law.
“They came by motorcycle, started the fires and also planted explosives that would go off when residents or firefighters got there,” he told AFP.
The mines have killed at least five people and wounded 10 in Kirkuk province.


But experts are reluctant to blame all of the fires on pyro-jihadists.
The extreme heat of northern Iraq, where temperatures have been hitting 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit), has created tinder-dry conditions in which a stray cigarette can easily set a field alight.
Farmers are also known to burn off vegetation in fields left fallow to make the soil more fertile for future seasons.
And the longstanding tug-of-war over land in northern Iraq likely plays a role, said security expert Hisham Al-Hashemi.
“IS claimed dozens of fires, but the others were certainly the product of land disputes, most often among tribes,” he told AFP.
Kirkuk, whose status is disputed by federal government and autonomous Kurdish regional administration, has witnessed periodic violence between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.
So has Nineveh, which has seen 119 fires in recent weeks, 16 of them on Thursday alone, according to its agricultural department chief Duraid Hekmat.
“There could be a variety of reasons — it could be deliberate or just an act of God, it could be negligence or personal disputes,” he said.
Nineveh was among the provinces hardest hit by IS, which seized its capital Mosul as its headquarters in 2014 and slaughtered thousands of members of its Yazidi religious minority.
“We’re facing a huge shortage of fire trucks. We have 50-55 vehicles but it’s not enough for 1.5 million hectares,” said Zakaria Ahmad, deputy head of Nineveh’s fire service.

The fires have been devastating for farmers banking on a good harvest to pay off their debts.
Around a third of Iraqis rely on agriculture for their livelihoods, with the government subsidising seeds and guaranteeing to buy part of the harvest.
Kirkuk’s 200,000 hectares produce an average 650,000 tons every year, according to Burhan Assi, who heads the provincial council’s agricultural service.
“This year, thanks to the rains, we were expecting around four tons per hectare, compared to just two last year because of the drought,” he told AFP.
But most of that has been destroyed in fires he called “the biggest, most widespread we’ve ever seen.”
Raad Sami, who farms land in southern Kirkuk, lost 90 hectares of wheat to the fires, which he blamed on IS.
“We had been waiting for the end of the season to reap our harvest and sell it to pay back our debts,” he said.
“Right now, the government needs to compensate us.”
Youssef Ahmad, a Turkmen farmer, doesn’t know who burned his fields.
But he doesn’t much care.
“Either it was IS, people who want to seize our land, or the result of a dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds,” he said.
“All together, they successfully destroyed Iraq’s economy and agriculture. Because of them, we’re going to have to import wheat.”


Homemade bomb kills Israeli teen, wounds two others in West Bank

Updated 35 min 35 sec ago

Homemade bomb kills Israeli teen, wounds two others in West Bank

  • Israeli security forces deployed throughout the area where the attack took place near the settlement of Dolev, northwest of Ramallah, to search for suspects
  • Palestinians sporadically clash with Israeli settlers and security forces in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967, but bomb blasts have been rare in recent years

JERUSALEM: A rare homemade bomb attack in the occupied West Bank killed an Israeli teen and seriously wounded her father and brother Friday as they visited a spring near a Jewish settlement, officials said.
Israeli security forces deployed throughout the area where the attack took place near the settlement of Dolev, northwest of Ramallah, to search for suspects.
Israeli medics had earlier reported that a 17-year-old had been critically wounded in the attack and officials later announced her death, naming her as Rina Shnerb from the central Israeli city of Lod.
Medics from the Magen David Adom rescue service initially gave the ages of the two wounded as 46 and 20, before amending to 21 in the latter case.
The army said the three victims were a father and his two children.
The two wounded were taken by helicopter to hospital, the army said.
“Three civilians who were in a nearby spring were injured in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast,” it said in a statement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “harsh terrorist attack” and sent condolences to the family, while pledging to continue building settlements.
“The security arms are in pursuit after the abhorrent terrorists,” he said in a statement.
“We will apprehend them. The long arm of Israel reaches all those who seek our lives and will settle accounts with them.”
United Nations envoy Nickolay Mladenov condemned the “shocking, heinous” attack, saying there was nothing heroic in Shnerb’s “murder,” calling it a “despicable, cowardly act.”
“Terror must be unequivocally condemned by ALL,” Mladenov wrote on Twitter.
Israeli forces meanwhile entered the Palestinian village of Beitunia, south of the spring, to take footage from surveillance cameras.
An AFP reporter said Palestinians clashed there with Israeli soldiers, but no casualties were reported.
Chief of the army, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi visited the site of the attack to understand the incident and oversee the efforts to locate the perpetrators, which he was “confident” would happen quickly, the military said.
Later in the day, Shnerb was buried in her hometown Lod, with thousands participating in the funeral.
Shnerb’s father Eitan, who was wounded and couldn’t attend the funeral, relayed through an uncle his request that people focus on “our strength and love and the wonderful nation and our good land” and avoid sinking into “weakness and anger and strife.”
“We should be worthy of the great sacrifice we offered today,” Eitan Shnerb was cited by the uncle as saying.
In a speech on Friday, Ismail Haniya, the leader of the Islamist Hamas movement which rules Gaza, praised the attack but did not claim responsibility for it.
He referred to a recent clash between Israeli police and Palestinian worshippers at the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and sought to draw a link between the two incidents.
AFP reporters said thousands of Gazans participated in weekly Friday protests at the Israeli border fence, with some youths using slingshots to launch stones at the barrier and a few approaching it.
The health ministry in the enclave said over 122 Palestinians were wounded in clashes with Israeli forces, dozens of them hit by live fire.
Palestinians sporadically clash with Israeli settlers and security forces in the West Bank, occupied by Israel since the Six-Day War of 1967, but bomb blasts have been rare in recent years.
Palestinian attacks have mostly involved guns, knives and car ramming.
There have been concerns about a possible increase in violence in the run up to Israel’s September 17 general election.
A week ago, a Palestinian carried out a car-ramming attack in the West Bank, wounding two Israelis before being shot dead.
On August 8, an off-duty Israeli soldier’s body was found with multiple stab wounds. Two Palestinian suspects were later arrested.
Late Thursday, a Palestinian threw grenades at Israeli soldiers while attempting to cross the Gaza border and was shot by Israeli forces, leaving him wounded, the army and the Gaza health ministry said.
Gaza militants have also launched six missiles at Israel in the past week; the most recent were on Wednesday.
In retaliation, the Israeli army said it struck “a number of military targets in a Hamas naval facility in the northern Gaza Strip.”