Several wells in Iraq’s Qayyara oilfield continue to burn six weeks after the US-backed Iraqi forces ousted ISIS militants from the town as part of their push on the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the oil ministry said on Wednesday. The militants torched oil wells in the region to help conceal their positions before fleeing ahead of the government advance into Qayyara, sending black smoke into the sky and oil pouring into main thoroughfares. Government efforts to put out the remaining oil fires are being hampered by ISIS shelling, and around nine of 15 wells were still ablaze, oil ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said.
The fires “are creating pollution and presenting serious health risks,” the UN refugee agency UNHCR said in an update on the Mosul region. “Efforts to quell the flames have been impeded reportedly by several attempted attacks by armed groups, which also threaten the safety and sustainability of returns,” UNHCR said, referring to refugees trying to move back to homes from which they fled when ISIS overran the northern Iraqi region in 2014. Its two main oilfields, Qayyara and Najma, used to produce up to 30,000 barrels per day of heavy crude before it fell under control of the ultra-hardline jihadists.
ISIL expanded its attacks on Monday against the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces, trying to relieve pressure on its own defences around Mosul, the group’s last major urban stronghold in the country. About 80 villages and town held by ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) were retaken in the first week of the offensive, bringing Iraqi and Kurdish forces closer to the edge of the city itself – where the battle will be hardest fought.
The Mosul campaign, which aims to crush the Iraqi portion of ISIL’s declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, may become the biggest battle yet in the 13 years of turmoil triggered by the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Some 1.5 million residents remain in the city, and worst-case forecasts see up to a million being uprooted, according to the United Nations. UN aid agencies say the fighting has so far forced about 7,400 people to flee their homes.