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Iraq - After years of war and drought, bumper crop is burning

Iraqi farmer Riyadh woke on May 13 to find his wheat crop ablaze. In his fields in Diyala province, he found the remains of a mobile phone and plastic bottle which he believes was an explosive device detonated in the night to start the fire.

Riyadh and his neighbors in Sheikh Tami village put out the blaze and saved most of his crop but hundreds of other farmers in Iraq have been less fortunate.

Since the harvest began in April, crop fires have raged across Diyala, Kirkuk, Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces while the government, battered by years of war and corruption, has few resources to counter a new hit-and-run insurgency.

Officials in Iraq’s breadbasket province Nineveh warned that if the fires spread to storage sites, a quarter of this year’s bumper harvest could be at risk, potentially ending Iraq’s dream of self-sufficiency after years of disruption due to drought and ISIS rule.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said last week that only about a 10th of the fires were the result of sabotage, with the rest caused by electrical faults, cigarette butts or faulty agricultural machinery.

He said just 40,000 donums (10,000 hectares) of wheat and barley had been destroyed by fire nationwide, a tiny proportion of the estimated 13 million donums of cultivated land.

“We are following up on the issue but it must not be blown out of proportion,” he told a weekly news conference on June 11.


Figures cited by federal officials, however, don’t tally with data given by officials and farmers in 10 areas of Diyala, Nineveh and Salahuddin provinces. Based on their figures, at least 145,000 donums had gone up in flames in those areas alone by June 16.

The prime minister said there had been 262 fires nationwide this year, but Salahuddin’s civil defense chief told there were 267 fires during May in that province. Officials in Diyala also said the federal figures were too low.

In Nineveh, which accounts for almost half Iraq’s cultivated land with 6 million donums devoted to grain, officials recorded 180 fires between May 18 and June 11. By June 10, 65,000 donums of wheat and barley had gone up in flames in the province, well above Baghdad’s estimate for all of Iraq.

“Some days we have 25 fires reported,” Nineveh’s agriculture chief Duraid Hekmat told in his Mosul office.

Nevertheless, Nineveh is still expected to produce 1.3 million tonnes of grain this year, which would help it regain its status as the country’s breadbasket.

In the town of Alam in Salahuddin, council chairman Jassem Khalaf has spent much of this year’s harvest consoling distraught locals who have lost a combined 250 hectares to fire.

On May 15, his entire 50 donums of land caught fire too, destroying an estimated 60 tonnes of wheat that would have earned him 40 million Iraqi dinars ($34,000).

“It went up in flames in a moment,” he said, standing in his scorched field of blackened crops holding a lone golden bushel.

Khalaf was adamant some of the fires were man-made.

“In the past we would hear of one field being burned once every few years. This year, the situation is out of the ordinary,” he said.

“Maybe there is short-circuiting, but there are also culprits and hidden hands.”


Hazem Jebbo, a farmer in the Christian town of Qaraqosh southeast of Mosul, knows the blaze that destroyed most of his crops was not started by ISIS. He blames the authorities for negligence.

Jebbo, 63 fled in 2014 when ISIS burned down his 100 olive trees, used his chicken coop as a shooting range and dug tunnels beneath his house. He returned to pick up the pieces in 2017.  For two years nothing grew due to drought but then the rain came and his crops flourished.

But a bullet-riddled electricity pole in the middle of one field fell over on May 31 and the live wire sparked a fire. The district’s only fire truck arrived swiftly but its water pump failed and Jebbo lost 122 donums, the bulk of his crops. Forty other farmers lost land that day as the blaze spread.

Jebbo said he had begged the local authorities to fix the damaged pole for more than a year. They did – an hour after the fire had died down.

“Let them hear me carefully,” he said in tears in the charred remains of his farm. “Their negligence burned hundreds of donums, led to these losses.”

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