ISIS sets wheat fields ablaze in Diyala
"Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) militants fired a series of rockets on al-Azim district in north-west Diyala province last week, setting agricultural fields ablaze.
The May 17th attack, which caused the burning of vast areas planted with wheat, led local officials to take urgent measures to salvage the harvest of this strategic crop.
"The terrorists targeted the area with six mortar shells before the air force could respond to the sources of fire and destroy two vehicles that were used in the attack," al-Azim district director Abdul Jabbar al-Obeidi said.
The shelling, according to al-Obeidi, caused the burning of 350 dunams of wheat fields in the district and in the nearby village of Albu Issa in Salaheddine province. The attack did not result in any casualties.
Targeting people's economic livelihood
"ISIS sought by this act to target the population's main source of livelihood," he said, by disrupting the harvest of wheat, which starts in the month of May of every year.
"Our district produces annually between 40,000 and 50,000 tonnes of wheat from a total area of 60,000 dunams," al-Obeidi said.
"These criminals gave up on confronting our forces and are resorting now, after their great defeats, to destroy the property of the people and damage the economic sector and national efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat," he said.
This attack was not the first of its kind. During previous harvests, the group deliberately bombed or set fire to agricultural lands in Diyala.
The largest was on May 8th, 2014 when wheat farms in the town of Qarah Tabbah that stretch over 500 dunams, were torched by ISIS elements.
The cultivation of grains, whose fields cover about 40% of the country's total area, is one of the pillars of the Iraqi economy.
The government aims to achieve self-sufficiency in wheat. Last year, Iraq produced 3.5 million tonnes of wheat, of which 300,000 tonnes were produced by Diyala province. The threshold to reach self-sufficiency is five million tonnes.
Increased security measures
Iraqi forces stepped up their operations in the agricultural areas in al-Azim to "thwart any new attacks by ISIS", said Mohammed Daifan, head of al-Azim district municipal council.
He called on security forces to clamp down on militants in the areas extending from al-Azim towards the province of Salaheddine and northwards to the city of al-Hawija in Kirkuk province, which is now one of the most important remaining strongholds of ISIS in Iraq.
These areas extend for about 250 square kilometres, Daifan told Diyaruna. "They are not sufficiently secured, and armed men often infiltrate them and launch rocket attacks on the villages of al-Azim threatening the lives of the residents and their crops."
The security situation remains fragile, he said.
"It is true that terrorists cannot carry out major operations there, but they are trying to use open areas to move freely," he added.
Other preventative measures
Local authorities in Diyala have started to boost civil defense and firefighting teams near the farms to swiftly extinguish the fires before they extend to larger areas.
Qusay al-Dulaimi, director of the agriculture division in al-Azim, said that the operation room supervising the harvest campaign approved urgent measures to save the rest of the harvest.
The most important of these measures is "the deployment of large numbers of agricultural harvesters in wheat fields in the area adjacent to the administrative borders with Salaheddine, where the estimated cultivated area is between 5,000 and 6,000 dunams", he told Diyaruna.
"We will begin harvesting these farms first, before we harvest farms in safe areas," he said, noting that they also will have priority in marketing their crops to the warehouses of the Ministry of Commerce.
The agriculture division will start receiving requests for compensation from farmers and will conduct surveys and preliminary reports on damages, he added.
"What happened is a terrorist attack and an act of sabotage that should not be repeated," al-Dulaimi said.