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.”

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass: ‘There isn’t a country that doesn’t love Egyptian archaeology’

Updated 4 min 26 sec ago

Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass: ‘There isn’t a country that doesn’t love Egyptian archaeology’

  • With only 30 percent of Egyptian monuments discovered, there is no rush to pursue the remaining 70 percent which remain hidden underground, says Hawass

 CAIRO: World-renowned Egyptian archaeologist Zahi Hawass has affirmed the importance of Egyptian archaeology around the globe.

“There isn’t a country that does not love Egyptian archaeology,” Hawass, who was minister of state for antiquities affairs, told Arab News.

With only 30 percent of Egyptian monuments discovered, Hawass said there was no rush to pursue the remaining 70 percent which remain hidden underground.

“We don’t want to discover everything. We want to start by preserving and preparing the historical monuments which we have discovered, then start thinking about what is still undiscovered,” Hawass said.

So, restoration and preservation are the main goals for now.

With the new Grand Egyptian Museum still in the works, it seems likely that archaeology will be put in the spotlight once again, with more room for Egyptian artifacts to be showcased and appreciated rather than hidden, as in the old Tahrir museum.

“No one in the world doesn’t know Egypt. Egyptian archaeology is in the hearts of all people all across the world,” Hawass said.

This explains the immense popularity the new museum is expecting, located as it is, minutes away from the Pyramids of Giza.

Another reason behind its expected popularity is the attention ancient Egyptian figures have received across the years.

“Among the most famous ancient Egyptian figures, even for those who are not interested in monuments, we have King Kufu, who built the greatest pyramid, because that pyramid is something everyone talks about,” Hawass said.

He added that King Tutankhamun was popular because his coffin was restored whole, as was King Ramses II, the most famous of Egyptian kings, and Queen Cleopatra. Each of these figures gained fame due to popular tales and monuments attached to them.

Hawass plays a crucial role in drawing awareness about Egyptian archaeology around the world as well as focusing on the current situation in Egypt.

“I lecture everywhere (about archaeology)” he said. “Two to three thousand people attend each of my lectures. So I take advantage of to tell people everywhere that Egypt is safe and that Egypt is run by a president whom we have chosen. I am trying to change the perception about Egypt.”

As part of his efforts to promote Egypt and Egyptian culture, Hawass recently visited Japan.

“They (the Japanese) love archaeology. I would never have expected to be famous in Japan, but as a result of their love of Egyptian archaeology, they know me,” Hawass explained.

This is but a speck in the eventful career Hawass has led — which all started by accident.

“As a child I wanted to become a lawyer, so I enrolled in law school at 16 but realized that it wasn’t something I could do. So I left law and decided to study literature. There they told me about a new section called archaeology,” Hawass said.

After graduating Hawass went to work for the government, which he dreaded, until his first project came along. Workers came across a statue hidden inside a coffin which he had to clean. During the process he found his passion for archaeology. He went on to pursue his graduate studies on the subject.

“I went from failure to success thanks to one thing: Passion. When a person is passionate about something, he excels in it.”

Hawass did not point out his most successful or most preferred moment in his career, so full his life has been of memorable events.

“You cannot prefer one of your children over another. They’re all in my heart, all of the discoveries I have made.”