Alleged arson attacks have multiplied in northern Iraq’s farming areas in recent weeks. In one month, 236 fires destroyed more than 5,100 hectares of cropland. Suspicions have fallen on the Islamic State as well as feuding locals. High temperatures have made matters worse. For Fr Paul, Christians and Muslims are victims. The local Church has helped fight fires.
Mosul (AsiaNews) – For more than a month, wheat and barley fields in northern Iraq have been the victims of mysterious fires, possibly intentional, causing thousands of hectares of cropland to go up in spoke. The area is considered the country’s breadbasket.
Some have blamed the Islamic State (IS) group, which is still active in the area, whilst others point the finger at local inter-ethnic conflicts.
The blazes hit four northern provinces, all of which had been at least partly controlled by the IS between 2014 and 2017 and have remained in the crosshairs of IS lone wolves or sleeper cells. Indeed, the group was quick to claim responsibility for the fires.
In its weekly online magazine al-Naba, the jihadi group said that its fighters destroyed "hundreds of hectares" owned by "apostates" in the provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Salahaddin and Diyala.
Officials in those areas believe IS was responsible for at least some of the fires because farmers refused to pay them zakat, 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," a police officer in Kirkuk told media. The mines have killed at least five people and wounded ten more in Kirkuk province alone.
Experts however are reluctant to put the blame for all the fires on pyro-jihadists. The extreme heat of northern Iraq, where temperatures have been hitting 45 degrees Celsius, has created tinder-dry conditions. Farmers are also known to burn off vegetation in fields left fallow to make the soil more fertile for future seasons.
"After many weeks of heavy rains, which facilitated the growth of all sorts of vegetation, the dry season and high temperatures were bound to cause fires,” said Fr Paul Thabit Mekko, a Chaldean priest and head of the Christian community in Karamles, a town in the Nineveh Plain.
"Some of these are accidents, whilst others are likely intentional. What is certain is that they are not only harming farmers, but also the Iraqi state, hit in its heart.”
Nineveh Province, which has a large Christian community, "produces 40 to 50 per cent of Iraq’s wheat. Our church has provided bulldozers and excavators to help put out the fires. In the last few days alone, we have had perhaps a dozen fires."
About one Iraqi in three relies on farming for a living. The government offers subsidies and buys part of the harvest. In Kirkuk alone there are 200,000 hectares are under cultivation, with an annual production of 650,000 tonnes.
For the clergyman, "Various groups affiliated with IS in Mosul, accidents or carelessness are behind the fires in the Nineveh Plain. What is certain is that fires touched both Christians and Muslims. Some people have posted on social media pictures of pieces of glass or lenses used to set fire as evidence that they were intentional."
"Perhaps it is an attempt to devastate the economy and stop the return of those who fled. Today the latter are trying to rebuild their lives. In this sense, money is needed from abroad because the resources on which we can currently count are insufficient to rebuild houses and public spaces like parks and gardens.”