A local militia member stands in front of a blazing oil fire on the northwestern edge of Qayyarah, Iraq, on Oct. 25.

The Islamic State Just Wants to Watch the World Burn

As Iraqi forces bear down on Mosul, the jihadi group is setting oil wells ablaze, using civilians as human shields, and executing those who try to flee.

By campbell macdiarmid | Photographs by cengiz yar
October 27, 2016

QAYYARAH, Iraq — It's mid morning, but the sky is still dark at an Iraqi Army checkpoint south of Mosul. A military truck rumbles toward the front line, packed with troops wearing respirators to protect them from the fetid, ink-gray air, polluted by oil fires lit by retreating Islamic State fighters.

The fires were lit more than two months ago, but continue to burn despite ongoing efforts by fire fighters. There is so much smoke that it has formed an inversion layer, blocking the sun and its warmth.

Through the gloom, civilians fleeing the fighting walk toward Qayyarah, a town 40 miles south of Mosul notable for its oil fields and an air base now used by the international coalition to bombard Islamic State positions. Mothers carry coughing infants; fathers walk arm in arm with small children. Most are grubby, tired, and empty-handed, save a few plastic grocery bags full of personal items.

“Hell,” his younger brother says. “We’ve come from hell to this.”

Above: In a maze of residential compounds 10 miles west of Lashkar Gah, a unit of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers hold the front line against Taliban forces.

The Final Front in the Afghan War

In the latest episode of FP’s The Backstory podcast, chief national security correspondent Dan De Luce talks with journalist Sune Rasmussen and photojournalist Andrew Quilty about reporting from Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan where the Afghan Army is losing ground to Taliban forces. Click here to listen.

As the Iraqi Army advances toward Mosul, the Islamic State’s largest remaining urban population center, a trickle of displaced Iraqis is turning into a flow that could soon be an unmanageable flood. In the first 10 days of the military operation to retake Mosul, more than 10,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting.

With the potential loss of Mosul looming, fleeing Iraqis tell of an increasingly brutal, paranoid, and vengeful rule by the Islamic State. Murder of civilians has become routine; those trying to escape the Islamic State’s grasp, those suspected of informing against the group, and those who were simply once a member of the army or police have all been targeted, several fleeing Iraqis say.

“I was whipped with chains for two-and-a-half days,” says Rayan Asal Khidayer, showing the scars on his legs. “They said I was helping the army.”

Displaced civilians arrive at a checkpoint on the edge of Qayyarah.

A woman stands with her children at a military checkpoint on the north side of Qayyarah on Oct. 25. Iraqi families displaced by the ongoing fighting between Iraqi government forces and the Islamic State are passing through the city on their way to refugee camps.

As the jihadi group’s fighters retreat, a pattern has emerged: scorched earth, civilians corralled for use as human shields, and a spate of final executions of those attempting to flee.

The three brothers hand their identification cards to the soldiers at the checkpoint north of Qayyarah. Wisem Yasin Mohamed, 32, tells the soldiers that his brother Taher, 33, is a diabetic and out of insulin. The soldiers direct them to wait to one side with a group of other men.

Although the Islamic State is being driven back militarily, Iraqi security forces are concerned that its supporters will join fleeing civilians and infiltrate behind the lines. But Wisem says they are victims of the Islamic State, not supporters. After two of his brothers fled their village of Mounireh, which lies midway between Mosul and Qayyarah, he and his remaining brothers faced repeated detention and torture by Islamic State fighters as punishment. “It was miserable and pitiful,” he says.

The Islamic State is dependent on the presence of civilians to legitimize its claim to have established a caliphate that represents all Muslims. As it comes under increasing pressure, the group has become desperate to retain control of its civilian population.

Waiting nearby to pass the checkpoint, Mahmoud Ahmed Ussein tells a similar story. “Daesh told us that there would be fighting in our village and they would take us to the town of Hamam to protect us,” he says, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. “This was a lie: They want to use us as human shields there so the army won’t attack them.”

His village, Mohandes Gharbi, was liberated a week earlier by soldiers of the Iraqi Army’s 15th Division, who told the residents to remain in their homes, but Ussein says they desperately need humanitarian assistance. “There was no food under ISIS; they only gave to those who pledged allegiance,” he says.

After his 17-year-old son had a seizure, Ussein walked 12 miles to find medication for him. “There is nothing now in our village, no supplies,” he says. “ISIS destroyed us, and now they’re desperate.”

In their desperation, Islamic State fighters have taken to setting fires in the hope of preventing airstrikes by blocking the view of fighter jets and drones. At Qayyarah and around other Islamic State-held towns, the oil fires produced plumes of smoke visible from space. Last week, militants set alight the Mishraq sulfur plant north of Qayyarah, adding toxic sulfur dioxide fumes to the noxious air. Several people are reported to have died already from respiratory ailments.

Two boys stand near an oil fire that has been flaming for months on the west side of Qayyarah, its smoke overwhelming the sky.

A boy stands near an oil fire that has been flaming for months on the west side of Qayyarah, its smoke overwhelming the sky.

Two Iraqi Army soldiers sit at a military checkpoint on the north side of Qayyarah on Oct. 25.

As Iraqi forces close in on the Islamic State, some of the civilians in the group’s territory have braved open rebellion. Magid Mehsen Jassim, a 53-year-old former employee of the now burning sulfur plant, describes an uprising in the village of Lazaga, another small town on the banks of the Tigris River between Mosul and Qayyarah. Even before the Iraqi Army arrived, Jassim says, several residents took up arms, killing at least four Islamic State fighters. The jihadis’ response to the attempted revolt, he says, was pitiless: “They killed seven villagers in revenge.”

He had just spent several days moving from place to place trying to avoid the fighting and the Islamic State, and his family’s own escape was finally facilitated by waving a white flag at the end of a long walk. “Then the army came and rescued us,” Jassim says.

Despite these horror stories, Iraqi security forces harbor their own doubts about this influx of civilians. Plainclothes officers waiting at the checkpoint pull aside some of the men and order them into the back of a pickup truck. “At least 90 percent of those guys are with ISIS,” says a man in jeans and a black dress shirt who identifies himself as a National Security Service officer from Baghdad but declines to give his name.

His job is to detain suspects, based on a list of names given to him by informants. “We can tell who’s with ISIS,” he says. “We look at their names and how they look — like by how recently they’ve shaved their beards, things like that. I guarantee at least five of them in the truck are hardcore members.”

Col. Khaled al-Jabouri, who was sent by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office in Baghdad to report on the humanitarian situation, observes the scene. He’s worried that the increasing number of displaced people will overwhelm the government’s ability to screen and transport them to safety. “We can barely handle this many; if more come, it will be a mess,” he says. “There are 1.5 million people in Mosul. When they come, what can I do?”

Iraqi Army Col. Khaled al-Jabouri stands by a military checkpoint on the north side of Qayyarah. He was sent by the prime minister’s office to observe the scene.

Two small boys walk hand in hand as they pass plumes of smoke from the oil fires burning in the northwestern part of Qayyarah on Oct. 25.

One thousand people arrived at the checkpoint on Oct. 25, Jabouri estimates, while perhaps 500 arrived by 10 a.m. the morning of Oct. 26. At least 140,000 civilians have fled fighting around Mosul since March, and aid agencies fear that up to a million could be displaced in total.

Jabouri is incensed at the lack of assistance from his own government. “Funding, where is it? Where is the assistance?” he asks. “I’m sending daily reports to the prime minister’s office requesting more help — but so far, nothing.”

A career military officer originally from Mosul, the scale of this humanitarian crisis is shocking to him. “We’ve been through battles in the past, but we’ve never seen a tragedy like this,” Jabouri says.

Black ash falls on his pressed uniform like greasy snowflakes. “Welcome to the new Iraq,” he says.

Campbell MacDiarmid is an Erbil-based freelance journalist covering conflict, international law, and humanitarian issues.
Cengiz Yar is a documentary photographer and freelance photojournalist based between Chicago and Iraq.

A local militia member walks down a deserted road in Qayyarah on Oct. 25. The air is thick and polluted with smoke from the oil fires.