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In the aftermath of Islamic State’s retreat in Iraq: destruction, fire and toxic fumes

Each week, the graveyard on a barren brown hill swells. Every new dirt mound is more evidence of Islamic State’s ruinous campaign in northwestern Iraq.

Stray dogs creep beside hundreds of slim Arabic headstones that stand cracked and broken, pummeled by the militants who considered them sacrilegious. A black plume of smoke fills the sky, rising from oil fields torched by the violent jihadi group to foil any new invaders.

At the back of the cemetery, where even the broken headstones vanish, Owaisha Hamdan sits in the dust next to three graves.

The first is that of her son, killed last week by an Islamic State car bomb. The other two, covered with a pink teddy bear blanket, belonged to her newborn nephews. Just a few days old, the boys died in their mothers’ arms last week as they attempted to flee the toxic fumes belching from a sulfur plant attacked by Islamic State.

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“Islamic State is not just fighting with guns. They set fire to the oil field to prevent the planes from bombing their positions. Now they set fires just to destroy the lives of the people,” said Ibrahim Atea Ahmed, 50, a resident of this forlorn town whose chickens, ducks and sheep died because of smoke from the oil fires.

“Even the beauty of the sun we can’t see,” he said.

A coordinated campaign by Iraqi and Kurdish forces to retake the city of Mosul has left more than 20,000 people stranded here near the west bank of the Tigris River, caught between the advancing army and Islamic State holdouts who have left an apocalyptic twilight of burning oil fields and toxic fumes in their wake.

The destruction of the sulfur plant has engulfed the area in rotten egg fumes. The oil field fires were first set months ago, both to obscure the terrain from potential airstrikes and to render the oil wells — which Islamic State had been using to finance its religious empire — useless for any new conquerors.

A wave of kidnappings and executions has also accompanied the militants’ violent retreat.

Mohammed Said Mohammed, 24, who was picking his way through the graveyard Wednesday, said he has lost five uncles to Islamic State attacks, three executed at once. One of his brothers, Muaataz, 36, a soldier, died trying to defend Mosul from Islamic State in 2014.

Now Mohammed was standing next to the fresh grave of another brother, Faras, 40, shot in a nearby village with more than 20 other civilians on Oct. 17, the day Iraqi forces and their allies launched the offensive to recapture Mosul.

“They broke the doors and killed them. They killed some women. They killed children 10, 8 years old. We saw their bodies with our own eyes,” Mohammed said. “They kill civilians and run away.”

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Gases from the sulfur plant sickened hundreds of residents who sought treatment this week at a local clinic, according to staffer Khalil Ibrahim Jasim. He distributed 1,500 protective masks.

“Now we don’t have any,” he said, and they didn’t have oxygen either: The area had been without electricity for days as a result of Islamic State attacks nearby.

Jasim said military officials had promised to address the problem in a few days, but nothing had been done.

The sulfur and oil field fire plumes, massive clouds of noxious black and white smoke, blotted out the area on satellite maps. The oily haze has turned everything gray: children’s T-shirts, women’s head scarves, old men’s skullcaps, even the sheep.

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The Mosul offensive has stranded thousands to the south, caught between the advancing Iraqi army and Islamic State holdouts who have left an apocalyptic twilight of burning oil fields and toxic fumes in their wake.

Almost everyone in town seems to have oily hands, “as if we are working with cars,” said Esam Najim, 21, a student in an Emirates soccer jersey who managed to score one of the scarce blue medical masks at the local clinic.

“Sometimes we need to shower four, five times a day” to get rid of the residue, said Shayma Jasim, 29, a mother of five who said the sulfur plant fire sickened her 10-year-old.

Businesses in the area are still open, but residents are wary of meat hanging outside the butcher shop, of the pomegranates and eggplants piled in front of Al-Muqtar Market.

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“We are worried about everything: Our food, our water. Even our plants died,” said Abdel Salam, 30, a father of three who runs the market.

Abdul Rahman Ali, 42, previously moved his family of five — the youngest just a year old — away from the burning oil fields to his father’s house across from Qayyarah. Then came the sulfur plant fire.

“Whenever there is an advance by the army, Islamic State is taking revenge: destroying things, executing people or taking them as human shields,” said Ali, who was waiting in a food distribution line Wednesday with scores of others.

He said his cousin in Lazaka, the same Sunni village where Mohammed’s brother was killed, was also executed by Islamic State last week.

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The militant group has carried out executions in several villages to the south of Mosul since the offensive began, Rupert Colville, spokesman for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said at a briefing this week in Geneva.

Iraqi soldiers drive through the town of Qayyarah, heavily damaged in August and again this past week, as Islamic State was driven out of town.
Iraqi soldiers drive through the town of Qayyarah, heavily damaged in August and again this past week, as Islamic State was driven out of town.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times )

Militants killed 15 civilians in the village of Safina, about 30 miles south of Mosul, throwing their bodies into a river.

They tied a dozen men’s hands to a vehicle and dragged them around the village before beating them with sticks and gun butts, Colville said.

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Last week, Iraqi security forces reportedly discovered the bodies of 70 civilian shooting victims in houses in Tuloul Naser village, 20 miles south of Mosul.

On Saturday, three women and three young girls were fatally shot by militants, and four children were wounded, in Rufeila, another village south of Mosul. They had been lagging behind a group that was being forcibly relocated, slowed by one of the children who was disabled, Colville said.

In Qayyarah, Sumaya Khalid Abed, 42, has had to care for her family alone since her husband, a police major, was kidnapped by Islamic State two years ago and held near Mosul. Now she worries that as the offensive advances, he could be killed.

Back at the cemetery, Hamdan sat next to the graves of her nephews, surrounded by others who had survived the sulfur plant attack. The sun was setting, but they could barely see it through the gray mist.

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Hamdan, 55, said she hopes Iraqi soldiers are careful to scour surrounding villages and rid them of militants before they can do more harm.

“The army came to free us,” she said, “And we are stuck between them.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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@mollyhf


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