Civil­ians pay price of IS ‘smoke war’ around Mo­sul

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The smoke from fires lit by Is­lamic State ji­hadists to pro­vide cover from air strikes has painted the north­ern Iraqi sky black, pro­vid­ing a dra­matic back­drop for the Mo­sul of­fen­sive. The use of smoke in war­fare is likely as old as war it­self but the masks and tech­nol­ogy avail­able to Iraqi forces in this con­flict leave civil­ians, es­pe­cially chil­dren, the most vul­ner­a­ble. As forces closed in on their Mo­sul bas­tion, IS set fire to oil wells, torched tyres in­side the city and set up a de­fense sys­tem around it that in­cludes burn­ing oil trenches to blind their en­emy’s air and satel­lite as­sets. In the area of Al-Tina, south of Mo­sul, bil­lows of white smoke from a sul­phur plant torched by IS were brought rolling in by the wind, mixed at times with black plumes from blaz­ing oil wells.

In the re­sult­ing haze, which lim­ited vi­sion to a few hun­dred me­ters, dust­caked chil­dren played on the road­side. “It blocks our chest,” said Tiba, an 11-yearold girl wear­ing a blue dress and red head­scarf. Anas, a seven-year-old boy with curly brown hair, said his throat was hurt­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a UN state­ment, 600 to 800 peo­ple have sought med­i­cal as­sis­tance be­cause of the toxic cloud re­leased by the sul­phur plant fire. Most of them were checked at a health cen­tre in nearby Qay­yarah but its chief doc­tor said sev­eral cases had to be trans­ferred to a bet­ter equipped hospi­tal nearby.

Two civil­ians are con­firmed to have died from in­hal­ing the sul­phur fumes. That fire was put out over the week­end but oil wells, some of which have been burn­ing for months, are till ablaze. Civil­ians liv­ing on the edges of Mo­sul in ar­eas not yet re­taken by Iraqi forces are also af­fected and have lim­ited op­tions for treat­ment. A medic at Mo­sul’s Jomhuri hospi­tal, whom AFP con­tacted but can not name for se­cu­rity rea­sons, said a grow­ing num­ber of res­i­dents were check­ing them­selves in with res­pi­ra­tory prob­lems. “Those who suf­fer the most are peo­ple with asthma, es­pe­cially chil­dren and the el­derly,” the medic said. “We are do­ing what we can but the short­age of drugs at the hospi­tal is get­ting worse.”

Doc­tors told AFP that IS fight­ers are tak­ing heavy ca­su­al­ties from the on­go­ing fight­ing and keep­ing most of the dwin­dling med­i­cal sup­plies for them­selves. Abu Thaer, who lives on the eastern out­skirts of Mo­sul, brought his five-year-old son to Jomhuri hospi­tal last week. “My son has asthma and he is suf­fer­ing a lot from the smoke,” he said. “The drugs still avail­able are ex­pen­sive so I moved him here, where he is be­ing treated in the oxy­gen room.” Up to 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple are be­lieved to still be liv­ing in the city and Abu Thaer said some were trying to move away from the fires to less af­fected neigh­bor­hoods.

Lim­ited mil­i­tary im­pact

Ac­cord­ing to health and chem­i­cal weapon con­tam­i­na­tion ex­perts from the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, the smoke clouds around Mo­sul were not of the most toxic kind. “The more the oil is pro­cessed-the more it will con­tain toxic fumes, but it would be less black,” the ICRC said. “The most lethal and dan­ger­ous toxic chem­i­cals are those we don’t eas­ily per­ceive with nat­u­ral senses,” it said. When masks are not avail­able, civil­ians should use a wet hand­ker­chief to cover their mouth and nose, the ICRC said.

On satel­lite im­agery, a dot­ting of black smudges ob­fus­cate the Mo­sul bat­tle­field but ex­perts ar­gue the ji­hadist tac­tic has lim­ited im­pact be­sides ob­scur­ing the vi­sion of drones. “Burn­ing oil wells does cause a lo­cal­ized nui­sance, but it doesn’t stop us from col­lect­ing in­tel­li­gence us­ing a va­ri­ety of aerial and space plat­forms,” said Colonel John Dor­rian, spokesman of the US-led anti-IS coali­tion.

David Witty, an an­a­lyst and re­tired US spe­cial forces colonel, said the fires were mostly ef­fec­tive at “tem­po­rar­ily im­ped­ing ground, tac­ti­cal op­er­a­tions as com­bat­ing forces draw close to each other”. “Smoke can greatly re­strict close air sup­port from at­tack he­li­copters, but less so for higher fly­ing air­craft which al­ready have GPS lo­ca­tions for tar­gets,” he said. In his­tory, Sala­hed­din, the 12th cen­tury Iraq-born founder of the Ayyu­bid dy­nasty, set dry grass on fire to dis­rupt his en­emy dur­ing the bat­tle of Hat­tin (in what is now Is­rael) to clinch a de­ci­sive vic­tory against the Cru­saders. —AFP

MO­SUL: Iraqi forces fire ar­tillery shells to­wards the nearby vil­lage of Zal­hafa from their po­si­tion on the out­skirts of the vil­lage of Al-Khuwayn, south of Mo­sul, af­ter re­cap­tur­ing it from Is­lamic State (IS) group ji­hadists. —AFP

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