of smoke shroud the summer sky of Iraq’s northern plains, creating an ominous
veil of grey. Fires in Nineveh province have broken out on a scale that farmers
here describe as unprecedented, turning tens of thousands of acres of wheat and
barley fields into barren patches of black.
“Look at that, the livelihood of the people is destroyed,” says Jalal Muamah as he picks up a handful of charred barley spikes that pepper his field near the town of Sinjar. “We won’t have a harvest better than this year, not even in the next hundred years.”
Strong rains and a return to relative stability following ISIS territorial defeat had promised to yield a bumper harvest, even raising hopes that Iraq could wean itself off its dependence on crop imports.
Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abd al-Mahdi, said on 16 July that, despite the fires, Iraq had so far produced a record quantity of wheat, adding that only a negligible amount of crops had been destroyed.
But testimonies from the ground and data obtained from local officials suggest that the impact of the fires is greater than the government admits. Duraid Hikmat, Nineveh’s director of agriculture, says his province alone had recorded 30,350 hectares (75,000 acres) of scorched crops as of 25 June, four times the figure given by the prime minister for the entire country.
While the impact of the fires is plain to see, the causes remain shrouded in mystery.
The prime minister attributed the fires largely to accidents, such as sparks from harvesting machines. “Most of the fires were for natural reasons,” Abd al-Mahdi told reporters at a press conference in Baghdad on 16 July. “The percentage of fires [caused] by criminal activities or terrorism is around 30%.”
This narrative is hard to accept for farmers, who say they have never before seen fires on such a scale. Local officials say there has been no thorough investigation into the causes, which has given rise to widespread speculation.
The fires have particularly affected Sunni and Yazidi communities that have struggled to recover from years of war and displacement. Near Hawija, one of the last towns to be freed from ISIS – and a place where militants retain a presence – farmers braved the threat of guerrilla-style attacks, only to see their harvest go up in flames. In Sinjar, the fires have torched the livelihoods of Yazidis who had begun to return after Isis drove them from their ancestral land in 2014.
“There’s economic warfare between countries so as to force Iraq to import,” says Hikmat. Unverified, shaky videos purportedly showing Iranian-backed armed groups setting fields ablaze have circulated on social media, fuelling conspiracy theories among Sunnis that Shiite Iran wants to hamper Iraq’s progress towards self-sufficiency.
There is probably no single cause for the fires. Conversations with two dozen farmers and local officials paint a complex picture of a combustible region where land disputes, local grievances, an ongoing Isis insurgency and competition for power between armed groups all provide plausible reasons for arson attacks.
In war-ravaged Sinjar, ISIS 2014 genocide of the Yazidi community has left deep rifts between Arabs and Yazidis, who accuse one another of land grabs.
“There are problems over land between Yazidis and Arabs because of the displacements,” says Lt Col Omar Alla Hassan, who heads the Iraqi army in Sinjar district. “People planted fields that aren’t theirs.”
Amid political strife, an enduring risk of mines, and lack of services, only 25% of Sinjar’s Yazidi minority have returned to their ancestral land. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a civil defense officer in Nineveh alleged that Yazidi farmers set their unplanted fields alight in a bid to demand compensation from the central government, whom they accuse of chronic neglect.
Farmers in rural Kirkuk believe ISIS are probably to blame. In a May newsletter, the group claimed responsibility for blazes in Iraq and Syria.
“There’s no one else who can do such a thing,” says Jassem Hussein Ahmed, a farmer from the village of Al-Abbasi who lost a third of his harvest to a fire. No Iranian-backed groups operate in the area, he explained, and an electrical spark was equally improbable as the electricity had been switched off for several hours by the time his fields caught fire.
The fires have fuelled the marginalization of Yazidis and Sunnis, with farmers and officials blaming the Shiite-led government in Baghdad for not doing enough to help.
In one village north of Mosul, a dozen farmers equipped with nothing but shovels and pieces of clothing rushed to quell the latest fires. Fuelled by strong winds, the flames engulfed their fields in a matter of minutes. A pickup truck carrying canisters of water trailed them as they braved the blaze in already blistering summer temperatures.
“There are no firefighters,” says Thamer Al Abadi, a local civil defense officer, as he coordinates the farmers’ efforts. “We’re afraid that the fire will reach our houses!”
Abadi says half of the province’s 50 fire trucks are out of order: “Our capacity is very limited because many of our vehicles were destroyed during the war against ISIS.”
The perceived lack of support and clarity over whether farmers will receive compensation risks further deepening apprehension towards the central government.
“We blame the government because they haven’t even showed up yet,” says Sami Jassem Mohammed, a farmer from Kirkuk province whose entire crop was scorched. “A lot of farms were burned, but they won’t get anything. The government doesn’t care.”