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Iraq’s record crop yield threatened by suspicious fires

Iraq is nearing record wheat production this year, even as widespread fires have destroyed thousands of acres of farmland in minority Sunni Arab and Yazidi communities. The Islamic State once terrorized the region in northern Iraq, where disputes over land are common. Yet the government contends the fires were started by natural causes or by accident. Special correspondent Simona Foltyn reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In 2014, northern Iraq became the site of an ISIS takeover.

    The terror group committed genocide against the country's Yazidi minority, and killed thousands of others.

    Iraq re-took control of the region after three years of fighting in 2017.

    But the troubles are far from over.

    ISIS continues an insurgent battle, and mysterious fires have broken out in numerous areas, destroying crops in a nation that is striving to achieve food self-sufficiency.

    Is it arson? And if so, who's to blame?

    NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Simona Foltyn reports from Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Smoke constantly billows from Iraq's northern plains. Fires like this have broken out daily, turning thousands of acres of pristine farmland into an apocalyptic landscape of ash. At first nobody tried to stop this blaze as it spread in the direction of Sinjar town, home to Iraq's Yazidi minority. People looked on helplessly as the flames encroached on homes only just rebuilt after the latest war left them in ruins. It took two hours for help to arrive. A handful of teenage volunteers with a single water truck provided by the town.

  • Jalal Kamal Haider:

    I'm not employed by the town, but we have to come and help because the fire is next to our houses!

  • Simona Foltyn:

    When the boys ran out of water, they drove off, once again leaving people to their own devices.

  • Kamal Haider Suleiman:

    Me and my three sons, we were putting out the fire in the four sides. I've been waiting for help since the fire started.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Fires like this one behind me have been raging through northern Iraq for weeks now, fueled by strong winds and the heat. And there are simply not enough firefighting resources to cover these vast areas. This province, called Nineveh, is Iraq's breadbasket, but fighting fires here is an enormous struggle. An official here told me almost half of its 50 fire trucks, including the two assigned to Sinjar district, have broken down.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Pliers and a piece of wire are all they have for emergency repairs.

  • Jalal Kamal Haider:

    The resources in Sinjar are very bad. Nobody takes care of Sinjar. The government doesn't care.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The government minimizes the importance and extent of the fires.

  • Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister:

    "What we estimate is around 30,000 donums — one donum is 2,500 meters — square meters, what we cultivated here in Iraq is more than 12 million donums, so you can see the ratio there, the percentage of the fires."

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Abdul Mahdi also claimed the bulk of the fires were caused by accidents.

  • Adel Abdul-Mahdi, Prime Minister:

    "Most of the fires were for natural reasons, sparks, but I think the percentage of fires by criminal activities, whether it's terrorist or criminal activities, it's around 30 or 34 percent, according to my memory."

  • Simona Foltyn:

    But according to interviews with two dozen farmers and local officials across two provinces, Baghdad hasn't conducted a thorough investigation into the cause of the fires. And the areas burned appear to be much larger than what the Prime Minister suggests. Duraid Hikmat is the director of agriculture of Nineveh.

  • Duraid Hikmat:

    40,000 donums of wheat and 80,000 donums of barley have been destroyed. We collect statistics for each sector, district, sub-district and village. All this has been registered.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    As of June 25, Nineveh province alone had recorded 253 fires and almost 75,000 acres of crops burned – four times the figure given by the Prime Minister for all of Iraq. Farmers and local officials say that the scale is unprecedented in their lifetime. For them, it's hard to imagine that so many fires could be the result of accidents. The location of the fires has also raised suspicions. Most have occurred in Sunni Arab farming communities across the provinces of Nineveh, Salahuddin, Kirkuk and Diyala. Only a few fires have broken out in Iraq's Shiite south, where the capital Baghdad is located.

  • Duraid Hikmat:

    According to my own perspective, there are some hidden hands, those who are not willing good for Iraq and want to destroy the economy of Iraq.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    So who could be setting the fields ablaze, and what could their motives be? Those affected point fingers at different sides – from Iranian-backed armed groups called the Popular Mobilization Forces to ISIS to rival ethno-religious groups. It's a sign of the many sources of simmering tensions that could inflame fresh conflicts in this fragile country.

  • Jalal Muamah:

    I swear by God, brother, in the morning at 10 o'clock we came to our land, maybe we had harvested six tons, and then they set the land on fire.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The year had begun much differently. Strong rains promised to yield a copious harvest, raising hopes that Iraq could reach self-sufficiency.

  • Jalal Muamah:

    In the whole Middle East, you wouldn't have found barley like this. It reached up to my chin!

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Jalal Muamah managed to salvage only a fraction of his barley before it went up in flames. He says no government official has come here to investigate the cause. He speculates that neighboring Iran, which is mainly Shiite, wants to increase Iraq's economic dependence on imports.

  • Jalal Muamah:

    It's only the Sunnis' harvest that got burned. I don't want to accuse anyone. But some people told me that someone from the Popular Mobilization Forces set the harvest on fire, I didn't see it, I don't know.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    There's no evidence for such theories. They are fueled by enduring sectarian strife and growing apprehension about Iran's influence in Iraq. During a visit to Baghdad earlier this year, Iran's president announced that he wanted to increase total Iranian exports to Iraq by two thirds. Some say that a drop in Iraq's wheat and barley production could benefit Iran's crop exporters. Iraqi officials, however, say that despite the fires, Iraq is on track to achieve record crop production. They also point to culprits other than Iran.

    We are on patrol with the Iraqi army through recently burned areas around Sinjar. Lt. Col. Omar Alla Hassan says most fires start in Sunni Arab areas south of Sinjar, one of several parts of Iraq where ISIS has survived as an insurgency.

  • Lt. Col. Omar Alla Hassan:

    Most of the fires come from the areas around Baaj and Tel Qasab. ISIS is still present there, it's not a safe area.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    ISIS has claimed responsibility for some of the fires, but the group isn't the only source of instability. ISIS's assault on the Yazidis has left deep rifts in the community. Yazidis accuse Sunni Arabs of supporting ISIS. Sunni Arabs say they are being ostracized simply because they belong to the sect the terror group pretends to champion. Many people have been displaced, and each side accuses the other of land grabs. The commander believes that the fires could be sparked by cycles of inter-communal revenge.

  • Lt. Col. Omar Alla Hassan:

    Of course there are problems over land between the Arabs and the Yazidis because of the displacements. People have farmed fields that aren't theirs.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    We travel to Kirkuk, another province afflicted by the fires. Here, too, ISIS remains a deadly threat. And here, too, officials cite land disputes as a potential cause of the fires. The governor of Kirkuk, however, says that the main reason for the fires was the strong rainfall earlier this year.

  • Rakan Jabouri:

    The causes are varied but they are all driven by the heavy rains and the dense bush in places that aren't farmed, so the fields are all connected with no space in between.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    In 2017, Hawija became one of the last towns to be freed from ISIS. But the militants retreated to nearby mountains and villages from which they continue to launch nightly operations, planting IEDs or attacking security forces. Farmers suspect the fires are the group's latest tactic to terrorize the population and to punish them for the lack of support.

  • Sami Jassem Mohammed:

    Those empty houses over there, they are very close to us. Those terrorists, they are hiding over there. We heard that they place lenses in the fields and when the sun is hot, they light the crops on fire.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Sami Jassem Mohammed lost all of his wheat when his fields went up in flames. His nephew was among those who tried to put them out.

  • Khaled Kalaf:

    It was a huge fire. Nobody could face it. We drenched the blankets with water and put them on the fire, but it didn't work.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    Some of those who came to help became victims themselves. When Ibrahim Abdallah Saleh and seven others rushed to the scene, their car hit an IED. It exploded, killing three. Saleh lost both legs and an arm. He has little doubt about who's responsible for both the IED and the fires.

  • Ibrahim Abdallah Saleh:

    ISIS. I saw them, those who set the fire. There were two. I saw it with my own eyes.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    I asked the Prime Minister whether or not there has been a thorough investigation into the causes.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    I spent a week on the ground reporting in northern Iraq, and I spoke to almost two dozen farmers, government officials, security officials, and all of them said that there had not been an official investigation and had not seen any probe into what was actually causing the fires, so I'm wondering how certain you can be about the numbers that you have provided in the past.

  • Adel Abdul-Mahdi:

    We took all the necessary measures, even the other provinces sent their equipment to Nineveh to fight fires.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The people may never know who is behind the majority of Iraq's mystery fires. What is certain, however, is that the losses have proven devastating for farming communities.

  • Khaled Kalaf:

    We worked so hard and it all went to waste. I was on the verge of tears. This is our livelihood.

  • Simona Foltyn:

    The director of agriculture in Nineveh told me that farmers could be eligible for compensation if their losses were caused by terrorist activities. But local government officials say that currently, Baghdad has no plans to compensate farmers.

    Muayad Abdulrahman and Mohammed Nouman contributed to this report.

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