Harvesting Fire: The Mystery Behind Burning Kurdish Crops in Iraq
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Harvesting Fire: The Mystery Behind Burning Kurdish Crops in Iraq

For the second year in a row, crops in the territories known as the “disputed areas” of northern Iraq are being set on fire to spoil the hard work of the Kurdish farmers who lived and farmed on these lands for centuries. In the recent days, several fire incidents reportedly burned acres of farms in the Qaraj plain, Gwer, and Makhmour, located in south of Mosul and southwest of the Kurdistan Region capital city, Erbil. It is feared that, just like the previous year, the sabotage would waste the entire crops in the areas disputed between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Federal Government of Iraq, which includes parts of Nineveh, Kirkuk, Diyala, and Salahaddin provinces. 

This leaves several questions unanswered despited Iraqi government’s investigations: Who is behind the burning crops? Who benefits from setting the Kurdish farms on fire? And, finally, how can it be stopped?

 

BACKGROUND TO THE STORY 

The first wave of widespread fire incidents in the Kurdish farms were reported in early May 2019. What surprised authorities was the fact that similar incidents, within the period of only a few days, were reported from the Kurdish areas not only in north of Iraq, but also in north of Syria, which remains a troubled territory where multiple groups, including the Syrian Kurds, the Turkish army, the Russians, and the Ankara-backed Islamist groups are still clashing.

According to official records, some of the fire incidents in Iraq were accidental, but the majority of them were intentionally caused by “unknown perpetrators”. Iraq’s Department of Civil Defense Police said in a report dated 29 June 2019 that out of 272 fire incidents up to June 8th, 2019, 35 of them were set deliberately for unknown reasons, 25 of them were caused by spark of fire from the harvesters, 74 others by electric fusing, and 22 incidents were caused by cigarettes. According to the same source, over 3,700 Hectare of wheat and barley farms were burned to ashes, while 99,334 hectare of farmlands were saved by firefighters. A study by the Iraqi Center for Policy Analysis and Research (ICPAR) estimated that the 2019 fire incidents cost farmers -- whose majority are Kurds -- approximately 645,951,000,000 IQD (about $542,689,872).

 

HOW THEY BURNED?

Besides the reports of Iraq’s Civil Defence Corps, the farmers themselves and investigations by local police departments have all indicated that the majority of the fire incidents were intentional during 2019’s harvesting season. Investigations found among the ashes  magnifying glasses, electricity cables cut from utility poles, cell phone devices, and even, in some cases, the remnants of devices suspected of small improvised explosives. These all demonstrate one fact: the fires were part of a systematic plot, and the target was bigger and more strategic than the crops of the Kurdish farmers only. 

 

WHO IS BEHIND IT

Several officials in Iraq have stated that the fire incidents were likely a systematic attack by a group or organization holding a specific agenda. They argued that the plan was most likely targeting Iraq’s agriculture infrastructure, citing similar incidents even in the southern provinces of Iraq, including the hundreds of tons of fish which died in the Euphrates and Shatt al-Arab Rivers the same year. Some officials suspected that the water was poisoned while others said a bacterial disease caused the disaster. 

Among all the different speculations, some of them were purely motivated by the convoluted political mentality of Iraqis. Many local police departments said the Islamic State -- also known as ISIS, ISIL, and Daesh -- was taking revenge for its defeat, others said the Iran-backed militias of Hashd al-Shaabi were punishing the Kurdish farmers who had refused to pay them extra-governmental taxes, another group believed that it was the result of a historic dispute between the Kurds and Arabs over the ownership of the lands, and, finally, there were some accusations directed at Iran and Saudi Arabia. As the number of fire incidents were growing, Iraq’s ministry of agriculture and its officials kept stating that the incidents were not natural or arbitrary, but they were intentional and systematic. 

Among all the speculations, one caught attention. It seemed logical for some people and sounded “hilarious” for some others: After people on social media speculated that Iran had masterminded the farmland fires, a counter-attack by pro-Iran groups began to point the finger at the United States. To understand the argument, it is necessary to go back to December 2018 when Iraq signed an agreement with the United States to import US wheat and rice. During a ceremony attended by then US Ambassador to Iraq, Douglas Silliman, Iraq’s Trade Minister said the agreement was covering the first half of 2019, and that it signaled “a wider cooperation with the American companies to supply Iraq with wheat and rice for 2019.”

Meanwhile, there was reportedly a plan by the Iraqi government to buy wheat also from Russia, the bitter rival of the United States. For this purpose, Baghdad had dispatched a delegation to Moscow in pursuit of a wheat agreement, which was reportedly well received by the hosts. This, if ture, obviously hurt the relations between Baghdad and Washington. Thus, Iraq would be the one suffering in any scenario where Americans and Russians pull it simultaniously. According to the ministry of agriculture, Iraq needs 5 million tons of wheat every year to satisfy its market. While its domestic production was not enough, the curse of the US upon Iraq’s move towards Russia could result in painful consequences. Not doing so, Iraq knew that it would need an alternative. 

 

WHAT WE LEARN FROM THE REACTIONS

The widespread suspicious fire incidents across the disputed Kurdish areas led to heated debates in the political sphere, media, and even among people on the streets of Kurdistan. Kurdistani factions at the Iraq parliament held a press conference at the height of the fire incidents to point out that “unknown parties” were working to destabilize the disputed Kurdish areas and harm the security of the region by burning the Kurdish-owned farmlands. They also urged the Iraqi president and prime minister to take immediate actions and prevent the situation from further deterioration. 

Meanwhile, members of provincial councils in the provinces of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala, Salahaddin, and Anbar also raised their voices to denounce the government's negligence in responding to the crisis. Some of them argued that government top officials were overlooking the issue as they were busy securing their personal political interests. 

A member of Diyala Provincial Council, Raad Dehlaki, said in a statement back in 2019 that a plan was behind the farmland fire incidents which was targeting Iraq’s agriculture sector. “Previous incidents, including destruction of agricultural lands and fish farms in Basra tell us that there are some people behind these incidents,” Dehlaki stated, an opinion which was shared by many other officials in Iraq, among them Ahmed al-Jabouri, the former governor of Salahaddin. 

The issue of burning farmlands soon found its way into a bigger debate: why Iraq is going only from bad to worse? 

Shaho Qaradaghi, a Kurdish writer wrote in an article that “Iraq is a failure as it cannot fulfill its tiniest obligation which is protecting agricultural lands and bringing those behind the fire incidents to justice. Iraq has also failed to fulfill its major obligations: It has failed to protect the embassies against regular bombardments… But it has been successful in one thing at least, which is inventing new ways of corruption.”

Well-known Iraqi journalist, Khalid al-Harbi, also commented on the issue with a few words only, writing “Iran is trying to turn Iraq back to a preagricultural society. 

 

A FOREIGN PLAN 

Some sources claimed that the fire incidents expanded only after Iraq’s ministry of agriculture reported that it was expecting to collect enough domestic crops in 2019, which could be considered as the first step towards self-sufficiency, especially in producing wheat and barley. Meanwhile, Iraqi Farmers Association was expecting 3 million tons of wheat to be collected due to the favourable rainfalls in 2019. That meant the Iraq government was needed to reduce wheat importing by 20% last year if everything was going smoothly. 

Also, the Agriculture Committee at the Iraqi parliament accused “some internal and international parties” of involvement in the fire incidents. However, they did not officially mention any names or countries, which left the chance for different and contradicting interpretations to grow. The parliamentary committee, however, made it clear that it was seeing the issue as a fiendish plan to harm Iraq’s agriculture sector while it was making noticeable progress after many years of war and violence. 

Meanwhile, Ahmed al-Ubeidi, an Iraqi retired Colonel who worked for decades with the Civil Defense Corps of Iraq, said that fire incidents at farmlands, generally, were something normal, especially in the scorching hot weather of Iraq, but the extremely large number of fires and massive damages they brought to Iraq’s agricultural sources within a short period of harvesting season in 2019, was not something natural. “There is no doubt that the burning of crops in different areas of Iraq on such a large scale, is something planned, with a specific agenda behind it,” he said. 

 

DAYTIME FARMERS; NIGHTTIME GUARDS 

Disappointed by the Iraqi security forces’ incapability to protect their crops, farmers had to take up arms at nights and stand guard on their farms. Media reports revealed last year that farmers across the disputed Kurdish areas had formed groups to nightwatch their lands. It was, probably, the best solution to address the issue while security forces and police departments let the farmers down by making it clear that the number of personnel were not enough to guard the agricultural lands. It can be understood by remembering that Iraq is already struggling to protect the populated areas, including its capital city, against terrorist attacks; therefore, expecting it to secure farmlands in remote areas sounds somehow unreasonable. 

While 2019 was a bitter disappointment for Kurdish farmers in Iraq, their hopes for 2020 were ruined with the beginning of the harvesting season this year. Multiple wheat farms were burned to ashes in the first two weeks of May, almost all of them in the disputed Kurdish areas around Kirkuk, Makhmour, Qaraj, and Gwer. 

This new crisis in Iraq brings with itself more questions than answers every time: Who is behind these new destructive plans? Why are the Kurdish farmers the prime target? Is the Islamic State or the Shia militias of Hashd al-Shaabi behind that? Or, is there a bigger plan against the Kurds, with the involvement of bigger players, going on? What are the options available to the Kurdistan regional government and parliament to push Baghdad and find a solution to the new crisis.  

 

(Translated from Kurdish by: Sardar Sattar)